Warriors Needed

Unfortunately, the public in general doesn't tend to know too terribly much about what we do, and many might think that anyone who is bilingual can be a translator, but that's like saying that anyone who can listen and speak is automatically a therapist or anyone who speaks English is a reporter or anyone who is funny is a comedian -- the list goes on on and on. Of course, being perfectly bilingual is the minimum requirement one needs to meet to be a professional translator, but we digress.

That's Tree pose, and not Warrior, but close enough?
We have a confession to make: when it comes to the public's lack of awareness about our profession, we have a particular pet peeve. For one reason or another, we cringe when we hear "Hillary Clinton is speaking through a translator," although this clearly is about an interpreter. The confusion doesn't seem to happen the other way around, but interpreters are consistently called translators. This might not be a big deal, but they are different professions, and we figured it's important to clear up this incorrect use of terms in the media. So instead of complaining to our colleagues and to each other, we decided to complain effectively and tell the media outlets in question that get it wrong. We write regular e-mails to a large number of newspapers, radio programs and magazines, and being a squeaky wheel has even gotten Judy on NPR, which issued a correction. The nice side effect of this is that NPR has now called her several times for a comment on a language-related issues. It sure looks like being a squeaky wheel might pay off.

So we have a proposal to make: join us. Instead of complaining to each other on Twitter (or elsewhere), tell the people who make the mistake and clear up the misunderstanding. This could be a simple two-line e-mail, which can be saved for future use (that's what we do). We frequently like to point out that translation (written word) and interpreting (spoken word) are like libel (written) and slander (spoken). Keep the tone nice and friendly and offer to elaborate. 

Can you imagine if even 1,000 colleagues sent one e-mail a day to some media outlet? We'd get more coverage for our profession, which is always a good thing, and we might educate the media and the public while we are at it, which is fantastic. We like to think about this translation/interpreting confusion along the lines of: what if the media consistently confused psychiatrists with psychologists? We bet the American Medical Association (and other associations around the world) would be up in arms about this. When translation and interpreting get confused, we figured that in addition to our professional associations setting the record straight, it can't hurt if we do it on an individual level as well.

And you know how our profession might get more recognition, the recognition it deserves? Perhaps by being talked about in the media. So let's combine the power of the media and the power of freelance translators around the world.

Will you join us and be a translation and interpreting warrior?


Michael Schubert on August 19, 2013 at 10:51 AM said...

I LOVE this blog, and I loved hearing your voice on NPR a couple years ago ... but I think there are more worthy peeves you could adopt as a pet. "Translator" has both a general (written and spoken word) and narrow (written) definition. (Same in German, no? www.duden.de/rechtschreibung/uebersetzen_dolmetschen_uebertragen). It is the general connotation that is meant in "American Translators Association," for example.

The statement "Hillary Clinton is speaking through a translator" is not actually wrong, just not as precise as it might be. And when the media refer to the plight of "Iraqi translators" who worked for US forces, for example, that's probably a wise choice of words, since I imagine that those poor fellows probably performed a hodgepodge of tasks encompassing both the written and spoken word.

Calling an interpreter a translator is not like calling a psychologist a psychiatrist, it is like calling a radiologist a doctor.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on August 19, 2013 at 1:19 PM said...

@Michael: Thanks for reading and for commenting. Very great point indeed, and it's worth debating -- perhaps over a beer/glass of wine at the conference. Well, we just want to emphasize the fact that these are two different professions, and one is not a specialty of the other, so we have to respectfully disagree with your doctor/radiologist example. Although of course our example isn't the best one either, but the best one we can come up with thus far. Suggestions welcome. :)

As someone who's spent some time talking to troops who work with linguists in the field, this work is ALWAYS spoken, and includes no written work at all, thus making these fine individuals interpreters. While we do agree on the general definition (written and spoken), we think that the reason the ATA did not have the term "interpreters" in it is not because they wanted to include interpreters by using translators, but because the association was, as far as we understand it, initially just a translators association. Now interpreters are part of it, too, and thus the byline: The voice of interpreters and translators.

And of course, dear Michael, you are very much right: there are better/worthier/more interesting/more meaningful pet peeves, but since this one is limited and relatively easy to solve, we will stick with it for now. And as you know, the ultimate goal is to simply shine a spotlight on our industry. :) See you in San Antonio!

In terms of how the use of the term has evolved, and we are speculating ere, perhaps there's been more emphasis on using the precise terms as interpreting has evolved into a more formally recognized profession with standards, codes of ethics and what not. Interesting discussion indeed -- we appreciate it. And thanks for your kind words about the blog.

Now, what's your industry pet peeve? Let's start another revolution, hehe. Perhaps we could focus on the whole bilingual equals translator misconception. That's a good one, and probably more important than our (admittedly petty) pet peeve.

Kevin Hendzel on August 20, 2013 at 1:12 PM said...

Your heart is certainly in the right place! There is a continuing need to improve the visibility of the profession, and every translator and interpreter who speaks out can make an (incremental) difference.

A few observations, though.

First, please, PLEASE don't make it about "translator" vs. "interpreter." That's something T&I professionals care about, because it's about them. This happens in other professions, too, such as when military people write in to complain about writers misusing "post" when "base" was correct.

The public doesn't care. They really don't. It has no impact on their own life or business or future.

(They also don't care about the fact that being bilingual does not automatically make you a professional translator or interpreter. Again, that's about us, not about them.)

Putting yourself in your clients' shoes is the hardest part of doing PR the right way. It's hard to stop thinking about T&I like language professionals do. Your priorities need to be the client priorities. On their list of concerns -- building their business, saving money, expanding to foreign markets, avoiding unnecessary spending, improving efficiency, doing more in less time -- they want and need everything "translated" into things that matter to them.

They honest to god could not care less about the terminology we use to talk about ourselves.

Back when I was ATA's national media spokesperson -- I volunteered for over 12 years -- I was probably on NPR about 30 times if you count local stations and affiliates and not once did our ATA PR advisor pitch them on having me come on and discuss the difference between translator and interpreter.

Like you, I'd done that on my own the previous decade before I volunteered for ATA, but looking back I regret that I wasted my personal valuable time talking about terminology with the public. Such a short amount of time to tell them about how we can help them, why our services are important, why they need us, how we can save them money in the long run, and how languages are crucial to building their businesses.

I sure did that better back when I was ATA spokesman because all us volunteers had worked out the messaging for months (months!) and then trained on how to deliver it. It took a ton of time and about 10 tons of effort.

Anyway, I appreciate your enthusiasm (yes!) but please understand that we only have the public's ear for a few seconds at any one time. Please don't squander that golden opportunity on things that matter to us but not to them. :)

Jo Rourke on August 22, 2013 at 2:31 AM said...

I love this blog, I feel that it is important to make the distinction between translator and interpreter, however, I also see Kevin's point that we should focus on what interests the public, rather than emphasising a distinction that translators and interpreters find important.

HOWEVER, perhaps a good middle ground might be using any media coverage that might be garnered to almost boast about the fact that translators and interpreters are confused with one another - showing that the language industry has much to offer and many diverse roles within it. The decline in language study around the world is a major problem, perhaps we can capitalise on the confusion to show that the industry is multi-faceted and progressive.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on August 28, 2013 at 9:39 AM said...

@Kevin: Thanks for your comment and sorry about the late response -- things have been crazy! We love hearing other voices on this blog, especially those who have other thoughts, which we greatly appreciate. Received your e-mails on this topic, but we respectfully dissent here. There is no one correct way to get the media to talk about our profession, but we believe we've found one that works for us and the industry in general.

Our heart is definitely in the right place, and we are getting results, so why fix it if it's not broken? We are getting coverage for our industry, so the opportunity is not squandered at all. Quite the contrary: the opportunity is CREATED because of our smart (we think) PR hook, so to say that it's wasted is confusing things. The only reason media reps have contacted us is because we've contacted them with this slightly irreverent one-liner/correction about the difference between T&I. We don't claim to be PR experts, but we do have a bit of experience in media (online, and 10 years on the board of a newspaper: Judy) and formal university studies in communications (Dagy), and this classic PR hook seems to be working: contact the media with a brief comment, even if it's not the most brilliant thing, but it gets them interested and we can continue the conversation abuot the industry. We don't see anything wrong with this approach at all. :) But of course we don't all have to agree.

Having worked in media, we can tell you that journalists don't typically respond to pitches along the lines of: "Translation is important! Please write about us!" You need a hook and we've created one, and it works, so why stop? Of course this is a petty and small issue (the diff. between T&I; which we agree isn't too terribly exciting, but again, it's just a conversation starter, analogous to an icebreaker at a cocktail party), but the idea is to get the ball rolling and the media calling, which we've successful done, as evidenced by our exposure in the media. And we've used those opportunities that have been created due to these efforts to talk about broader issues. So it's successful, but of course we are use other strategies that might work. But which are they? You don't mention them.

Here's a challenge: why don't you come up with a one-liner that gets the media hooked, that all of us can send to journalists, and that gets immediate results! We'd love to have another quick PR hook that we can send to journalists that will create the same results we have gotten. So let's issue a Kevin challenge: send whatever you think is the right hook (post it here if you would like), tell us how many "bites" you get, and we will gladly adopt your strategy if it's successful. Deal? And we shall toast this with a drink at the ATA conference in San Antonio. Until then, we will continue using this successful hook to create opportunities to talk about our industry with the media. :)

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on August 28, 2013 at 9:42 AM said...

@Jo: Thanks for your lovely and balanced comment. This is certainly a tricky topic, and there are no right answers. We love your solution, though -- great middle ground indeed! Our only goal really is to move the industry into the spotlight, and there are many ways to do it. Perhaps we can all create a PR strategy together. :) Now, we just need some volunteers...

Thanks for reading!

Join this discussion! Commenting is a great way of becoming part of the translation community. Your comments don’t have to be overly academic to get published . Agreeing or not agreeing with the issue at hand and stating why is a good way to start. Social media are all about interaction, so don’t limit yourself to reading and start commenting!

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The entrepreneurial linguists and translating twins blog about the business of translation from Las Vegas and Vienna.