"We labor in obscurity." These are the words of a literary translator who contacted Nina Sankovitch recently, as reported in her excellent post, "Found in Translation: Honoring Literary Translators." If you can't name the Swedish-to-English translator of "The Girl Who Played with Fire," just imagine who's behind the translation of Apple's latest slogan for the South Korean launch of the iPad 2. The vast majority of translators don't just labor in obscurity -- they're invisible.
Here's the typical scenario: Buyer needs words translated. Buyer sends words to translation firm. Translation firm sends words to translators. Translators send translation back to translation firm. Translation firm sends words back to buyer. Buyer publishes words.
The file format, number of languages, output type, and other items vary, but the process remains fairly simple. The translator is usually left completely behind the scenes, unable to ask the source author any questions about the original text, even when doing so would facilitate a translation of better quality.
The distance between the buyer of translation services and the translator is vast.
But oh, how things are changing.
At a Common Sense Advisory event held for buyers of translation at Google's headquarters last year on the topic of translation quality measurement, an individual from one large organization complained, "Even though I have no contact with the translators, I can always tell when one of them goes on vacation." She went on to share that the quality degraded, because the replacement translators were less familiar with her company's work.
I also noticed this trend in some recent research on life sciences translation. One interviewee explained, "For the first time ever, we're bringing the translators on-site so we can train them ourselves and be absolutely sure they're familiar with our brand and proprietary terminology."
When I was conducting research on translation quality, one buyer told me that when he is selecting a translation firm, he logs onto some of the online communities where translators congregate to see what they are writing about the vendors. "I don't want to work with any company that doesn't treat its translators as its most valuable asset," he said. "Our brand is in their hands."
Most translators are not looking for glory. They don't expect to see their names in lights, or on the cover of a book. They simply want the ability to do the best job they can. They want to be proud of the difficult work they do. Giving them a closer relationship with the buyer facilitates that. Slowly but surely, technology is bridging the gap between buyers of translation and the translators themselves.
Delivering multilingual content is never truly a solo act. So, it isn't that the translator will ever take center stage alone. But it's becoming more common for the translator to join the rehearsals and be seen as part of the crew. And maybe just once in awhile, she can join the rest of the cast onstage, not because she needs to be seen, but so she, too, can see the faces of the people who applaud and appreciate her work.
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