The Hierarchy of Translators (Hierarchy, What Hierarchy?)

The fact that we translators have no professional hierarchy (or, at least not the hierarchy that we deserve), need not be a source of useless griping or sterile debates on translation sites and lists.

That we lack professional hierarchy becomes evident: when the deadline is of key importance (above all, in terms of the genuine possibility of delivering an entire project by a certain date); when any bilingual person will do as a replacement for us (as if simply being bilingual were enough); when any client, regardless of his/her level of “linguistic solvency”, feels justified in questioning our use of language; when the translator’s Intellectual Property Rights (what rights?) come into play; and, (clearly) when it’s time to get down to brass tacks, our rates, and the subject is how much a translator’s work is WORTH.

Not long ago, I had an interesting experience with a new client. I had done a first translation for them: a presentation in MS PowerPoint from the home office Human Resources Department to be used in providing information to the Argentine branch. Frankly, I wasn’t overjoyed or 100% satisfied with the end product, since that’s something that never happens to a good translator (you know what I mean, we’re eternal perfectionists). But by my high standards as a translator, I felt it was a job very well done. It had taken an extra stroke of creativity. You probably are aware that there are certain catch-phrases in US Human Resources material that cause a negative reaction when they are translated into other language cultures: those typical phrases like “You can do it!” or “Call now!”. In Argentina, at least, these catch-phrases are non-sellers. In fact, when translated, they often awaken suspicion of a phony message and cause us not to trust the source. So anyway, I first translated the material into Spanish and then into “Argentine”. It was complex, but I’d done a good job.

A few days later, the client called and asked me for a discount on the rate we had agreed to. “Uh-huh,” I said, “and just why would I offer such a discount?”  “Well,” they said, “because it was an easy translation, a Human Resources thing, in PowerPoint, with short phrases and many of them repeated.”


Suddenly something went click. This was (perhaps) to be a turning point in my life as a translator: Time to take the reins, time to know that this (translation) is my ship and that I am her captain.

Like most of you, I have clients in other countries (clients I never see and probably never will) and clients in my own city (whom I never see either, and wonder if I ever will). I don’t know how this works for those of you living in other countries, but in Argentina, translators usually build their client lists through recommendations. If he/she is good, it’s a chain reaction. But the translator is not a provider who has a place of hierarchy among professional service providers. And the client rarely if ever devotes any time whatsoever to the translator. It is a strange thing indeed to meet a client face to face. Translations come and go in the pouches of anonymous motorcycle couriers. Then we send a bill and, later, they write a check. But in this case, I asked for a meeting and off I went to the client’s offices.

While I was cooling my heels in the reception waiting room, I began to review my 20-year career as a translator, all of the tribulations, all of the books that had passed through my hands, all of the classes I had attended. And one day, along came the Internet and took us out of the bubble we were living in and placed us in contact with other translators all over the world and allowed us to sharpen our quality standards still further with new tools. I even recalled the course on prepositions that I had attended…

So when I walked into the office of the Human Resources Director, I felt like I was standing tall, sure of myself and proud to be a translator. We were both university professionals: She had graduated from the University of Buenos Aires the same as I had. But fate had willed that the world positioned her profession in one place and mine in another. I perused all of the diplomas and course certificates on her walls How to Motivate Personnel?, Can Empowerment Be Taught?, How to Be a Good Coach?, and so on and so forth. Then I thought about us, about how we tend not to have offices and to file away our diplomas in folders…

Then, I started talking. I told her how I had gone about adapting the translation, so that the spirit of the document could be understood, but while also maintaining the natural flow of the language. I explained the difficulty of selecting the right words when we seek to be purists, but all the while knowing that the right jargon (= client) is what counts. I explained, too, that an English text may expand in size by more than 20% when it is translated into Spanish and that, for that reason, the fact that the document was in MS PowerPoint was more of a problem than an advantage when it came to trying to fit a longer text into a smaller box. I sought to explain, as concisely as I could and without overwhelming her, what it meant to be a translator. I had to, because I am a translator! I wore myself out gnawing on my fury once I got home, and crying when I talked it over with a group of translators. Fairy godmothers don’t exist. Less still Hierarchal Fairy Godmothers to lift us up.

Daniela Camozzi and Daniela Rodrigues Gesualdi are the authors of an interesting essay about the invisibility of the translator. The co-authors suggest that it is translators themselves who tend to undermine their own image.

It is time that we employ the same shrewdness with which we navigate among words and language to move within a world that has long denied us the place that we DESERVE.
Let’s create that place for ourselves that would appear not to exist. Let’s raise our voices every chance we get. Who can forget that boss who said I should do the translations “quickly, however it comes out” (as if the response to a divorce suit could be done “quickly” or as if you could pull a tooth “however it comes out”). If the world has no idea what we do, it’s up to us to tell them what it means to be a translator, that it is our profession and our passion.

If we want our voices to be heard, we have to start speaking out.

Aurora Humarán
Translated by Dan Newland
Illustrated by Juan Manuel Tavella