Recovering the Dropped Ball (or, The Concept of the Professional Community)

A few months ago, my prescription glasses suffered an accident. Since Murphy’s Law always prevails, this happened late on a Friday afternoon. I immediately set out to find a temporary stopgap for this problem.

I walked into an optical shop and asked the optician who waited on me for “a pair of emergency glasses”. The man in the white coat looked at me as if I were the Anti-Christ. Unable to imagine why he was reacting this way, I repeated my request, accompanied this time by a barrage of information: I’d broken my specs, I didn’t have any way to replace them urgently (it was a weekend and I couldn’t get an appointment with my optometrist or take care of any of the other red tape involved), so I would really appreciate it if he were to sell me a pair of glasses with a diopter reading of, say, 2 or 2.5, for astigmatism and far-sightedness. Or maybe by now, I allowed, it was a question of presbyopia? Seeking his empathy, I told him that ten years earlier I’d had my eyes operated on for a prior condition of astigmatism and far-sightedness and that these conditions had eased considerably. “But at this age!,” I said with a smile of complicity. Looming middle-aged far-sightedness was almost impossible to avoid. But in a last attempt to change his indignant expression I assured him that if tomorrow an operation were invented to correct presbyopia, I was having it.

“Lady,” he said, preparing to clear up the mystery surrounding his anger, “how can you ask me, a professional optician, to sell you a pair of mergency glasses?” By way of explanation I said that I was almost certain I had seen racks of ready-made reading glasses in his shop (all very stylish, with the coolest of frames). “Never!,” he snapped. “Maybe you saw them in Dr. Cutrate’s Drugstore or someplace, but never in my shop. There’s no way a professional optician like myself would sell something that undercuts our profession. It would be ridiculous for us to do something that runs counter to our own professional interests. It’s only logical that we opticians should defend our own existence, don’t you think?”

The answer was, yes, I did think so. He was a professional defending his profession. No two ways about it.

So what’s our story? How are we doing? Common interests. Different interests. Opposite interests.

To what extent do we translators and interpreters huddle together (like football players huddling around their coach) and talk among ourselves about strategic issues –the kind of issues affecting the defense of our chosen profession, in which we make our living? And what the heck are certain companies, with interests that are not merely different from ours, but diametrically opposed to them doing in our same circle? Let me see if I can explain this concept: A physical therapist clearly has interests that are different from but not opposed to those of the translator. But certain firms and certain agencies that today form part of our world harbor interests that are not only different from, but also completely opposite to our own.

It is clear as day that someone who is flogging a certain type of mass-use, post-editing software does not share our same professional interests. That doesn’t mean that we can’t sit down at a business table and talk to them: On the contrary, we should indeed talk to third parties in our area of work. But let’s not get confused here: These people are not translators or interpreters. And their opinions are bound to be biased.

Be that as it may, these self-styled translation gurus have infiltrated our circle. They strut around at our conferences and association-sponsored events. They write flashy articles with the pretension of becoming industry benchmarks and they fire off opinions from their blogs. Some of our colleagues fail to realize that such figures are not just another member of the translating community and even tend to look on them with admiration. Remember, in general, these are people with a very different background from our own: They have a sound footing in technological and business issues. But, I repeat, their interests are not merely different from, but opposed to ours.

Nevertheless, from the position of strength that we ourselves have given them, they are injecting highly damaging concepts (though clearly evident ones, if we just stop to reflect on what they are seeking) into our profession. And so it is that, for some time now, they’ve been whispering these concepts into our ears, since it is in their interest that we should buy what they’re trying to sell: namely, that quality doesn’t matter; that rates don’t matter (what’s important is monthly income); that ethics are an obsession that only has a place in the Bible or the Talmud; that if we question certain technologies that work in their favor and to our detriment, we’re being Luddites; that confidentiality is a topic that can be put aside in the discussion of on-line translating, shared memories, crowdsourcing, etc.; that we should promote anything that makes multilingual communication less laborious and “expensive” (How is it that the rates they charge haven’t been “democratized”?), that post-editing not only doesn’t pose a threat to us, but is actually an “excellent opportunity”, etc. Everything said above brings us to a crystal clear question: What’s wrong with us, colleagues? Are we blind to what’s happening? Are these industry sirens so very clever?

I propose a time-out in which to talk strictly among ourselves and, as one colleague put it, recover the ball that we dropped, because it’s certainly not in our hands at present.

I want to conclude with an anecdote –dental this time. During a regular checkup, my dentist announces that I have a couple of small cavities on adjoining molars just under the crown. “I’m only going to give you one shot of anesthetic and we’ll get everything over with quickly,” she says. And that’s what she did: a single prick with the needle, then the fearsome drill, and everything was over with in the time it took to open and close my mouth. When she asks me to sign the insurance form, she says, “Two signatures, one for each cavity repaired.” Then she adds, “Anesthesia is billed for each of the two teeth, you know?” Of course. It’s clear to me. We
translators are the only ones who accept the concept of discounts for repetitions.

Come on, let’s recover the ball we’ve dropped, colleagues.

Aurora Matilde HumarĂ¡n

Translated by Dan Newland

Illustrated by Juan Manuel Tavella