Logos Multilingual Portal

39 - Translators in society

ON THE NET - in italian
Lumet Sidney

Translators are social animals, because to translate means to communicate. Translators are also cultural animals if, as we said, translation is first of all the translation of one culture into another. In this respect, whoever belongs to a community - meant as social group in the broadest sense of the term - and must deal with people who do not belong to that community is obliged to translate in order to communicate from within to the outside of the social group. In every community, communication is based on an extremely high percentage of elements that are taken for granted as assimilated around which the communication takes place. If a message started from a compendium of all the assimilated data, it would be interminable.

  However, since in every community the obvious, assimilated data may vary, those who live within it and operate outside that community must carry out translations.

  A good example may be Sydney Lumet's film A Stranger Among Us1. A policewoman has to investigate within a Hassidic Jewish community in New York and, in order to do it, she must pretend to be a member of that community. The whole film is centered around the translation problems between the culture of the Hassidic community and the broader standard culture of New York.

  If we imagine the cultural universe as a giant organism composed of cells - according to the biological metaphor which Lotman took from Vernadskij - translation is an activity that takes place at membrane level: the translation between the individual and the outside takes place within the membranes of the smallest cells (individuals), as we said in unit 35. The translation between the inside and the outside of the communities takes place within the membranes of sets of cells (community, families, social groups, clubs, associations, etc.).

  As we saw in unit 17, Lotman dealt with the concept of "limit" or "border", which represents the separation element between one's own and the other's and creates the chance to communicate through the activity of translation.

  But is the translator in the center of society (being an operator of the communication) or is he on its sidelines (being relegated to the "membrane")?

  Translation could be a solitary activity if, in most cases, the translator must have at her disposal remote-communication tools such as telephone, fax and email. The use of these instruments is spreading, the potentialities of computer-mediated communications are increasing and, simultaneously, communication costs are being reduced; all this makes the physical distance between the translator and the customer a less and less important factor.

  We can also see the problem from another point of view: if it's true that the translator can work from whatever country she likes, it is also true that she manages to find work with difficulty and, consequently, has difficulty in making her name circulate in the society, unless she has created a series of social relationships 2 aimed at allowing her to become a well-known professional.

  The translator is an oxymoron: she is in the center of the society and, simultaneously, on its sidelines. In the center, because of everything we have said about her fundamental function in the communication system; on the sidelines because, by definition, she works at the border between two cultures/languages. In the center, because a very high portion of the press is made of translations; on the sidelines because, in many cases, it is denied or ignored that they are translations or, when it is not denied, the translator's role (and name) is hardly ever brought to light.

  Some translators complain about this, while it would be more useful to understand what the reasons are behind it. Evidently, a culture of translation is missing and, for many generations, there were no institutions teaching translation. There are still people convinced that there is no need for a culture of translation, that an engineering text should be translated by an engineer, that a literary text should be translated by a writer, and so on.

  Fortunately, in many parts of the world the University Institutes for translators and interpreters have the same structure. Such institutes - in line with the more general university structure - are organized into a common triennium, at the end of which students obtain a diploma in linguistic mediation, and a further biennium subdivided into three different courses (technical-scientific translation, literary translation, conference interpreting), at the end of which students obtain a master's degree.

  Translators can be subdivided in various ways. There are translators employed in companies where they do clerical work and translate or write documents in various languages.

  There are also freelance translators who work inside and outside the publishing industry. Such distinction follows pragmatic criteria rather than ontological ones.

  Translators who do not work for publishers - and who are often called "technical" translators, even if they do not only deal with technical texts - are considered alike any other freelancer.

  Translators who work for publishers - and who are often called "literary" translators even if they deal with non-fiction or scientific texts - usually provide a collaboration whose consistency is quite variable. From the tax viewpoint, they are equated to writers.

  In both fields, but especially outside the publishing industry, there are a number of small and medium companies that gather the translators' labor force in various ways:

  • translators' cooperatives and associations, which represent the fairest form of organization: the resources (premises, equipment, capability) are in common, but profits are distributed in proportion to availability and capability;
  • big translation companies (like Logos, that gives space to this course), where we find both external translators - who provide their collaboration - and internal translators who are usually responsible for a linguistic combination or a sector;
  • translation agencies. There are various kinds, but they are all based on the same concept; the commercial mediator (between customer and translator) gets a brokerage commission, whereas the translator earns a part (often paltry) of the original compensation.

There are trading associations and awards for translators, but the bulk of the activity takes place outside these circuits. Translators themselves find it difficult to identify with their group and, despite their shared job titles, there are remarkable differences, also at the practical level, between a literary translator who works for the publishing industry and a translator of manuals; therefore, the concept of "defense of the profession" becomes quite abstract.

  Now that the institutional basis for translators' university education has been laid and the disciplinary self-consciousness of translation science is increasing exponentially, we can expect nothing less than a better tomorrow.


Bibliographical references

LUMET S. A Stranger Among Us. Con M. Griffith, E. Thal. Usa, 1992.

ROBINSON D. Becoming a Translator. An Accelerated Course. London, Routledge, 1997. ISBN 0-415-14861-8.

1 Lumet 1992.
2 Robinson 1977, p. 203.