A tribute to professional translators around the world

We are more useful than ever in our global world, but we have become invisible. Gone are the days when our names were featured prominently on our translations. It seems that good habits acquired over many centuries are now lost.

With few exceptions, our names are mostly forgotten on the books, articles, web pages, news, movies, videos, mobile apps and games whose translations required hours, weeks or months of our hard work.

When our names are present, they are in fine print above or under the copyright notice at the very bottom of a page nobody will ever read, or they are mentioned at the last second of a movie or a video.

We rarely share the limelight with authors, let alone the cover and the title page of their translated books, whereas these authors and their publishers would not have all these new readers — and this new market — without our patient labour carried out day after day.

Some authors and publishers are interested in us, others not at all. Few authors invite us when they launch their books in a foreign language. And most publishers seem to think of us as a minor genre.

Despite being more useful than ever on our multilingual and multicultural planet, our working conditions have worsened. Most of the time, we work remotely, with precarious employment, difficult working conditions and plummeting fees.

The internet and digital technologies have their good sides of course — I think for example of the fantastic encyclopedia that is the web — but also their bad sides.

Translation services are now offered by language service companies that act as an intermediary between clients and freelance translators while taking a significant percentage of our earnings.

Instead of hiring in-house translators as was the case in the past, multinational companies now hire project managers who manage a team of freelance translators while also taking a significant percentage of our earnings.

Volunteer translations — including crowdfunded translations — are actively promoted by large organisations that have the necessary funds to hire many professionals, but no professional translators.

Do we ask an electrician or a plumber to work as an unpaid volunteer? No. When you are a translator, you are called upon ten times a day to contribute to a better world. A better world for whom? I often volunteer in a team of volunteers for causes that are dear to me. But to be a volunteer in a team of employees? No. In this case, all work deserves pay.

Being bilingual is a great asset, but is not enough to be a good translator. To be a translator is a profession and requires a thorough knowledge of the subject matter. Many of our colleagues fought during decades for translators to have a professional status and to receive professional training.

Translation is a bridge between languages ​​and cultures. Let us imagine for a moment a bookstore or a library in which all the translated works have disappeared. And a web where all the translated pages are erased. And movie theatres without foreign films. And the academic and scientific literature without translated articles. And this is also true for mangas, mobile apps, video games and many more cultural goods.

We — translators around the world — are full-fledged professionals contributing to knowledge, science, culture and leisure, on the same level as authors, illustrators, journalists, film makers, researchers, educators, artists and other creators. We deserve to see our names on our translations.

We do not want to be reduced to the human extension of computer-assisted translation or machine translation, although we recognise that such software is useful. We have been promised a 100% reliable machine translation since the 1950s, but this is still not the case in 2020. Human translators are still useful. Artificial intelligence does not replace human intelligence for many translations.

In a world where we no longer know if a translator is a human being or a software, we want to be recognised as qualified professionals and even as artists, not only for our precarious life, but also for the craft, dedication and passion we put into our work.

What can we do to be recognised in our society? A friend of mine suggests to write down the translators’ names for one year as a tribute to their work. It is a good idea. And the duration can be variable: for one month, for one week, or even for one day. A full day in a whole country or a whole region would be a good start.

Marie Lebert