The Sophie's Choice of Translators

Jorge Rodrigues

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Sometimes I catch myself thinking how different a translation career is today when compared to the “golden years” of our profession―the 1980s. It's as if we lived in another world, another galaxy, another dimension even, considering how different work procedures and methods were back then.

At that time, computers were luxury items, so expensive, complex, hard to master and use, and they were only available to very few people. What was once our regular tool, a typewriter, is now an item that belongs in a museum. Most professionals working in the area used mechanical typewriters, even though electric and electronic models already existed. Electronic typewriters, a major breakthrough in their time, brought an innovative advance: sufficient memory for you to type two pages. Yes, you read it right: TWO PAGES... A five-year-old living today would make fun of such “progress,” but back then it was a significant turning point.

Soon after that, personal computers (PCs) started to become more popular, despite being simple, having little memory available, and running incipient software. Still, it was a huge step forward. Years later, computers and software were gradually perfected, incorporating more functionalities and tools that have greatly increased the productivity of professional translators.

For example, if translators were good typists―that's how we used to call typewriter “operators” back then―they were able to translate and type about thirty pages of text all in a day's work. By “translate” I mean the entire three-step process: translating, proofreading, and final editing. With personal computers, their output became substantially higher, sometimes even doubled: translating 40-60 pages a day was a regular occurrence.

Then, in the early 1990s, Computer-Assisted Translation Tools (CAT) were introduced. CATs are computer programs that allow us to build a translation memory as we work. With time, these memories grow gradually and, when used in other translation projects, they allow translators to optimize the process. Our output reached a level we had never dreamed of before. Today, it is not rare to have a 100-page day, while some achieve a record average of 150-160 pages a day. These are best-case scenarios, of course, under ideal conditions, but they do happen from time to time.

Well, one might say that, if a translator nowadays can translate four, five, even six times more than in the past, ours should be the best-paid job in the world, right? Well, yes and no. After all, it's not all a bed of roses. And roses have thorns, you know?

This increase in productivity that has been facilitated by CATs was soon targeted by other stakeholders in the translation industry: large translation corporations. They have bigger financial, structural, and human resources, so they greatly adhered to the use of these new work tools. Since they have a larger production scale and, consequently, more leverage in the market, these companies started to take a bigger portion of the profits generated by this higher productivity and use all their “weight” to consolidate their leading position in the industry.

As a negative consequence of the hold these large companies have on the sector, there is this strong trend of “proletarization” among translators. Professionals who have been freelancers by nature are now flocking to these companies in large numbers, whether they work as in-house translators, or remote translators from their own home offices. And this “proletarization” trend seems to have taken place at two different levels: financially and operationally.

Looking at the financial aspect, most productivity gains resulting from CAT use goes to large translation companies, not translators. And, from an operational perspective, translators have practically become just another part of the engine.

Browsing online translation groups (on Facebook, LinkedIn, Yahoo Groups, etc.) we often read comments like this: “I've met my goal: I've produced X thousand words,” or “This week I've reached my financial goal for the entire month already,” or “I've just met my daily quota; now I can get some rest.” And these sentences aren't uttered by beginners; they're actually said by experienced, renowned translators whose quality and professional competence precedes them.

Like I said, it's obviously not all a bed of roses, nor do we get only thorns. The certainty of having a constant work flow and the fact that you don't have to worry about other tasks that aren't translation-related―such as finding potential clients, managing projects, worrying about customer service, billing, and collecting―are some of the undeniable benefits of working for large translation companies.

However, a very interesting alternative would be translators taking ownership all to themselves of their own (sic) advantages generated by the recent increase in productivity, thus escaping from proletarization and embracing high specialization with open arms (sic). The more you perfect your craft by studying, reading, researching, training, and making use of their critical sense to position themselves at higher professional levels, being able to impose their own rules, fees, and work system.

Going back to thorns, the path to high specialization may be long, tortuous, and demand a lot of dedication, effort, and discipline―lots of discipline―until you find success. Nevertheless, as far as flowers are concerned, this option surely improves quality of life for translators by miles, both professionally and personally.

There is this female translator who is very well known in the industry who chose the path to specialization and once posted the following to a Facebook group: “My business plan is to make more and more each day, working less and less, not the other way around.” I wholehearted agree with her opinion.

Well, to me, this seems to be the “Sophie's choice” of modern translator: proletarization or specialization. Choosing wisely is the challenge of our time.


JORGE RODRIGUES is a translator specializing in the legal, business, corporate and marketing areas, working from English, French and Spanish into Brazilian Portuguese and from Brazilian Portuguese into English. He is also a legal and consecutive interpreter working with English and Brazilian Portuguese. He is the owner of Rodrigues Traduções®, a translation company that operates in several market segments, providing services through its own team as well as forming partnerships with other language service providers. Jorge is a member of the Brazilian Translators and Interpreters Association (ABRATES), the American Translators Association (ATA), and the Brazilian National Union of Translators (SINTRA). He is accredited by the Federal Courts of Brazil (First Judicial Subsection of São Paulo) and the Federal Court of Accounts in Brazil (TCU). Additionally, he volunteers as a translator and reviewer at the NGO Translators without Borders, and participates actively in several international translator and interpreter groups and communities, such as ProZ.com―where he acts as moderator―, Translators Cafe, Lexis, LinkedIn, and Facebook, among others. In February 2013, he went back to school in order to complete his higher education studies, and is currently working towards a BA in Translation and Interpreting.