From One Professional To Another
I'm writing this as an English Philology major, with a minor in Translation Theory and a few years' experience with freelance language work, and one day I wish/ hope/ mean to make my living by relying on the skills, the perseverance and the backbone that my language and translation studies have alloted me. A pretty meager and wildly optimistic place to be, I'm sure you'll agree, but also one that I believe deserves my trust, and a measure of vindication. If you find yourself in a situation similar to mine — working your guts & your wits out for a future you love but that you've been given every reason to mistrust — then I'll be glad to be writing to a sympathizing counterpart.
Some Suggested Tenets
I've been thinking a lot about ways of gradually overcoming this said mistrust, which is really an avatar of the reasonably healthy fear of the Yet-to-Occur. One thing I've come to realize is that the future does not occur at all: it is influenced by and constructed in the present. As we change as individuals over time, we can only intimate a certain degree of foresight that we attain by planning, hoping, growing and readying ourselves as best we can for new situations and challenges — sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Thankfully, working life (here as distinct from life proper..!) is more structured than the recesses of human parapsychosociology, and what "makes it tick" is a question with a bearably understated existential subtext.
It helps to consider how readily available the tools and building blocks of professional confidence actually are. The skills mentioned earlier are taught to us by teachers, professors and other veterans of the industry; we discover the perseverance in ourselves when we keep our chins up and realize how close "so close and yet so far" really is; but I feel confident that the backbone itself is something that comes from a combination of these things and from an uncompromizing sense of self-respect that we each need in order to function individually and, some might say more relevantly still, professionally. Once we realize that what we do is valuable, and that we all deserve respect for doing it as best we can, it's really only a matter of balancing between the emotions of constructive pride and desensitizing hubris.
We can't all be kings or queens of the world, but we can sure as hell be professional. I like the word "profession", and the word "professional" even more, and I'll try to illustrate why. When someone writes a confession, they say "I confess!", and this strikes me as just a touch melodramatic in-context. But when someone has a profession, they can say "This is what I profess, what I avow and acknowledge!" Also not exactly pathosless, I grant you, but acknowledging something is a positive, potentially productive action, especially when it concerns something that you (a) love and (b) make money by doing. And the way I figure it, if you don't love what you do you have no business doing it in the first place; then again if what you're doing is very certainly your thing but it earns you no income, then you're being too romantic a martyr and will eventually starve while kicking yourself.
The trick seems to be to make what you love feel like real work, and at the same time to make hard work feel like something you love and enjoy. This attitude will feel paradoxical at times, and no matter how good you are at something or how much you enjoy it, you will occasionally hate it. If you find yourself never, ever hating what you love, something is wrong and you need to start embracing the paradox instead. Developing a backbone is instrumental to embracing this idea of embracing.
Now, as I see it, what this all really comes down to is this: if you feel like a professional and act like a professional, then for all intents and purposes, you are a professional. It isn't a trait that we gain like some sort of prize once we have enough study points or notches on our CV or framed pieces of paper on our walls — just like the future isn't something that simply happens to us, but something that happens because of us, and springs from decisions and attitudes. Feeling like a professional is a matter of internal significance and the labyrinth of self-worth, and is strengthened by passive, positive reinforcement (e.g. by being right and being told so). Acting like a professional (e.g. standing up for your rights and then being treated accordingly) is an external mandate, a code that can be taught and must be upheld in the face of every kind of nightmarish scenario imaginable; a sort of worker's chivalry. If you break the code, you may do an injustice to yourself, your employer and your entire profession.
Parts of this code basically amount to common sense embodied as action, e.g. "always speak respectfully to people who want to transfer sums of money to your bank account" and the like. Other parts don't come to us quite as naturally. Now I've been mentioning money a lot, and there is a very specific, very simple reason for that. (For those of you who were thinking "tl;dr" several paragraphs ago, this is the meat of the issue that I want to impart):
As translators, we provide a specialist service. We are language specialists who deal in cross-linguistic localization in innumerable different industries and situations. Our abilities are sought out because we provide what others cannot, and all kinds of different employers — companies, entrepeneurs, individuals, institutions, events — need us for what we are able to do, for what we work ourselves raw to be able to do as effectively and efficiently as possible. We do not provide this valuable service for free or for peanuts, the same way that a mechanic does not fix a car without a charge to match. The difference, in these terms, between a mechanic and a translator is that the worth of a mechanic is a given; nobody would dream of getting away with tuppence for having a licensed mechanic fix their car's hydraulics, whereas all too often translators (and by extension proofreaders) are seen as "people who speak a bit of [your second language(s) here]". If that is the way you see yourself, then get smart or get out of the way. If, however, you think that being envisioned as little more than a language hobbyist is a gross, disrespectful understatement, it's time to take affront — and to act professional about it.
Also, we don't need or deserve to be reminded that we are still students. We are made aware of that fact on a daily basis by the very nature of student life and all the challenges, limitations and duties it calls upon us to surmount. And while experience and schooling have an enormous impact on what we can accomplish and how well we understand the methods of our industry, we also don't need to be authorized translators in order to have highly developed and specialized skills or to have a sense of self-respect about the work we do. Professionalism is, first and foremost, an attitude.
Quell the Rumour
The last time I got riled up about this issue was when a young woman approached the student readership of SUB's mailing list in September 2010 with a job offer that made me do a mental spittake: the offer was an 80-page English-language proofreading job, in 2 days, for 80€. As I commented at the time, both the timeframe and the payment indicated in the offer were inutterably ridiculous. A great rule-of-thumb resource that I've been using for years is SUB ry's own "Guidelines for students and employers on job assignments" (see Links at the end). They are, as indicated, guidelines not rules, and I have on many occasions made fee demands (which have been accepted by employers) that surpass those mentioned in the article many times over. But just to illustrate how miniscule the fee this young woman was gunning for in September really was, here's some basic math based on quotes from the Guidelines:
[NB: For the purposes of official, ballpark timekeeping] if you just read through a text you could expect to read up to 5 pages per hour. On the other hand, if you’re required to make a lot of corrections, proof-reading might turn out to be as slow as translating.
According to this estimate of close reading, it would take sixteen hours just to read through the 80 pages! Taking that 16h as our absolute minimum time for proofreading this text, and using the Guideline's 15-30€/h fee, a person doing this proofreading job should be paid 240-480€ to do the task (assuming that this theoretical superhuman person could manage to work on the same text diligently for 16 hours in two short days and still do a good job).
These are the figures I informed the aforementioned young woman of after she had made her offer, and her reaction was one of genuine surprise. She had intended no disrespect, she was just completely oblivious of the basic guidelines of professional proofreading; and what's most alarming, she had heard and believed a rumour that language students are the way to go for the cheapest proofread/translation in town. The only way that rumours like this can ever be quelled is by reinforcing the opposite impression and making it a reality. Either get paid every cent your hard work and expertise entitles you to, or don't do the job at all. Believe me, I know that turning down job offers seems like an unrealistic luxury to a student living none too seldom on the brink of poverty, but it is precisely for the sake of avoiding future misery and unemployment that we have to start exemplifying true, at times seemingly self-sacrificing professionalism now. I know that when I've graduated I'm not going to let uninformed and desperate students do my work for a tenth of the actual going rate! Besides, what employers tend to respect the most is a confident attitude of expertise (as well as actual quality of work), and I've never needed to turn down a single job offer over a fee disagreement except the outrageous one examined above.
This all needs to be put into perspective though. Every individual translation/proofreading/&c. job is a separate case, and the fairness of the estimated fee will rely on many fluctuating elements. These include length (measured in "translator's pages" (Fin. liuska or kääntäjän sivu) = 1560 characters, hours, words, or characters with or without spaces), difficulty (terminological, syntactical, stylistic, technical, &c.), timeframe (think rush job vs. open deadline), as well as personal experience and accolades such as academic schooling and linguistic background. There are no ready-made rules, partly because gigs can vary wildly from one another in all the above traits, and others. It is up to each of us to feel out the vibe of the work and the tone of the industry, to attune ourselves to the ethics and philosophy of what it is we do and how we do it. I hope this essay, albeit probably a little rambling and still no more than a general overview, will help you toward making sense of where you figure in the rich and occasionally puzzling tug-of-war of professional translation, or other profession of your choice.
Here are some (mostly Finnish-English-Finnish) translation-related sites that I've come across or that have been strongly recommended to me, and which I strongly recommend that everyone takes a good look at. We need to know the world we are entering, and thankfully the internet is full of little wormholes and windows into that world. I make especially frequent use of the various internet dictionaries, not because they're exhaustive or perfect but because they're free and convenient, and they help trigger my own translation processes. No tool is too lowly or too embarrassing if it helps the process (except, you know, plagiarism). And remember to turn to specialists if you are translating something in a field that is unknown to you.
Have fun, and stay classy!
Helpful & Interesting Sites SUB ry's Guidelines for students and employers on job assignments
SKTL's (Suomen kääntäjien ja tulkkien liitto) surveys of the prices charged by professional translators
Av-kääntäjät, the semi-official website and forum for Finnish audio-visual translators and dubbers
Corinne McKay's Thoughts on Translation blog
The Finnish Ulysses, a blog updated by writer, publisher and translator extraordinaire Leevi Lehto, which follows his retranslation of James Joyce's Ulysses into Finnish, the first since Pentti Saarikoski's 1964 translation.