Anthony Pym


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On the market as a factor in the training of translators

Anthony Pym 1998

First published in Koiné 3 (1993), 109-121.

The market demand for translations is often cited as a determinant on the way translators should be trained. But how should one assess the strength of this relation? In search of answers, I propose to consider several general aspects of the translation market as found in Spain, particularly with respect to processes of specialization. I shall integrate a few mediatory political and cultural factors before projecting the resulting market profile onto our teaching institutions. Despite this one-way methodology, my main arguments will be against any strong direct relation between market demands and the training of translators. Paradoxes abound.

I should perhaps note that I have worked, off and on, as a professional translator in Spain from 1981, mainly in the fields of economics and sociology, and that I was involved in the training of translators from 1987 to 1992, first in Barcelona and then in the Canary Islands. Most of what I have to say is based on this unquantified experience. I can thus only present arguments for discussion, not information compiled from a position of omniscient expertise.

1. The consequences of technology

As in many fields, the market for translations is ultimately determined by the available technology. This has never been truer than in the age of personal computers, modems, faxes and translator-specific software and support tools. Although combinations and improvements of word processing and communications technology will no doubt continue, we can be fairly sure that the major twentieth-century revolutions have already taken place. The next decade will most probably be spent sorting out the consequences and further integrating computer-aided translation. The following outcomes already apply to professional translation:

1.1. Professional translators must physically possess basic computer technology, not only for relations with materially distant clients and for accelerating outputs but also for accessing larger-scale technology, fundamentally data banks of various shapes and sizes. If they have not made this step, they will not be professional translators for long. But personal computers are cheap enough and becoming cheaper, and the skills required need not be inhuman.

1.2. Communications technology means that the labour market for translators is no longer strongly determined by material distance. The market is increasingly decentralized, becoming national and international rather than intra-city. Living in the Canary Islands I spent three years working for clients three or four thousand kilometres away. The only real constraint on distance is the cost of telephone calls.

1.3. The services offered by translators are extending into other areas. Most obviously, the production of electronic texts means that we are doing a good deal of what was once called revision, typesetting, formatting and layout work. Properly equipped translators can also carry out straight terminology work, editing and text production, making maximum use of their target-language competences. Some years ago a translator was employed to render a Spanish publisher's catalogue into English for the Frankfurt Book Fair. Nowadays he doesn't translate it, he writes and formats it, going through the Spanish publicity copy and selecting what is likely to be of interest, then going to Frankfurt to represent the firm. He is still a translator, but he now offers a rather more complete service. This could well become a general tendency, both for freelance translators and small service companies.

1.4. There is a corresponding move away from in-house translation departments as once found in large companies. The most successful alternatives are small service-sector companies and cooperatives. These offer general language services within an extremely flexible framework, allowing teamwork on the diversified tasks outlined above. Gambier (1988) points out that such arrangements allow much larger investments in technology than can be borne by individual translators; they enable a distribution of irregular workloads; and they potentially offer a group guarantee of quality. Such organizations may or may not have related branches in different cities; they may or may not be agencies relaying work to independent translators. But the general tendency towards small specialized companies has nevertheless been as clear in Britain's years of economic recession (Verrinder 1983: 30-33) as in Spain's years of economic expansion in the late 1980s, to say nothing of the Finnish experience supporting Gambier's analysis. A striking example of the general process can be found in the English translation services for the Barcelona Olympic Games, which went through three stages in the space of four years. Although the services were originally supposed to be provided by a university translation school, it was then considered more efficient to set up a centralized in-house team. But what would happen to the translators after the Games? How could they develop the flexibility needed for continued survival? In the end, the translators themselves set up an independent agency that took over much of the Olympic work at the same time as it diversified and thus ensured reasonably long-term employment. The straight translations carried out by such companies or agencies are sometimes combined with service activities like publication, graphic arts, publicity, research work and company representation, depending on the individual backgrounds of the translators and the extent to which they are able to invest in technology.

There is an almost natural transition from individual freelance translating to small cooperatives and companies. But the transition is not always easy. At least one minor note of warning should be sounded: The bonds of friendship that often link individual translators tend to be strained as soon as money and quality are at stake. And friendship is sometimes of greater value than business.

The market trend for the coming years can be described in terms of these four factors: the imperatives of communications technology, a geographically decentralized labour market, combination with associated services, and the development of highly flexible service-sector companies or agencies. All this is reasonably well known. But none of it should be taken as a recipe for the training of translators. There are further factors to be considered.

2. The demand for specialized translation

The technological factors determining this market structure also have a more indirect influence on the kinds of texts we have to translate, since technology is changing the outlooks and requirements of our clients. We are witnessing constant increases not only in the rate of change in highly technological areas but also in the degree of intercultural contact in these domains, to say nothing of the sheer quantities of texts produced. This is creating a major intercultural stratification of discourses, cutting across what were once idealized as relatively homogeneous national languages. Enormous quantities of texts and terminologies are fairly remote from anything like common everyday language, seriously questioning political ideals of "all-purpose" languages. This general phenomenon might be called "specialization", although the term is clearly shorthand for a complex configuration of tendencies. Such specialization has several effects on the demand for translations:

2.1. Since the international and linguistic distribution of specialized-text production is very unequal, these changes are taking place in a very asymmetric way. Information flows have quite different directions on different levels. For example, Spain's accession to the EC meant the country's agriculture had to be significantly restructured and modernized, requiring the translation of all kinds of regulations, technical manuals and market information, mostly from English. However, this inward flow also created a demand for sociological studies of how EC policies were working in Spain, and these studies had to be translated into English. So while regulations and technical texts went one way, sociology went the other. Specific languages can thus compound general specialization. The translator's decision to become professionally competent in a particular target language thus implies accepting certain restrictions on fields of specialization (this is particularly clear in the cases of limited-diffusion languages like Catalan and Basque).

2.2. Despite increasing specialization, it would be wrong to predict an indefinite increase in the amount of translating to be done in specialized areas, just as it would be conceptually inept to see translation as an integral part of technology transfers. The reason is quite simple. As the initial demand for translations increases in a given area, it approaches a point where language-learning policies become more profitable or cost-effective. One thus finds that the proportion of meetings using interpreters, out of the total of JICS services, diminishes according to the degree of specialization: 57% for the Commission, 31% for the Council of Ministers, 8% for the Economic and Social Committee, and down to 0.21% for the European Investment Bank (Commission 1993; more recent figures here; my thanks to Carlo Marzocchi for corrections on this point). To take a diachronic example, the demand for English-language computer technology in Spain in the 1980s seems to have had roughly the following consequences (if some simplification can be allowed for): translators could not keep up with the initial demand and their work always lagged far behind the developments; the market value of good technical translations shot up - giving rise to several of the small service-sector companies describe above -; untrained translators who knew nothing about computers briefly entered the market; the general quality of translations plummeted and the Spanish language consequently failed to establish fixed terminologies for many areas of the new technology. In the midst of the mess, the more specialized users and sellers of this technology were forced to upgrade their English, entirely bypassing translative mediation. Although this particular process is difficult to quantify, it has partial parallels in other specific areas like the introduction of a futures market in Spain. Indeed, the tendency away from generalized translation has affected most highly specialized fields. All Spanish scientists read English and a good many publish directly in English as well. They do not need translators; they need English-speakers able to correct their syntax. The result is that in many highly specialized fields translation only really enters at a moment of vulgarization, well after the actual technology transfer.

2.3. Although specialization has partly assisted the development of small service-sector translation companies, it does not necessarily require the employment of highly trained specialists in the fields concerned. Given the acceleration of changes, flexibility and adaptability are of greater market value than is field-specific in-depth knowledge. And even when individual translators attain high degrees of specific expertise and stable employment in specific areas like financing or engineering, they would often be economically better off working as finance-consultants or engineers than as translators. Highly specialized competence can price one out of the translation market.

2.4. Given this limitation, translators increasingly work in teams or at least in conjunction with non-translators. This usually involves seeking the advice and cooperation of internal or external experts, often the clients themselves. Examples here could be anything from correcting a Spanish scientist's paper written in faltering English (but written with all the correct terminology) to participating as an active member of research teams, combining properly translational skills with the more general use of foreign languages for research work. More mundanely, this tendency means that a good translator is not someone who knows many things but someone who has the skills and contacts to find specific information when necessary.

2.5. The above factors are having an influence on the more traditional sector of part-time freelance translators working on the fringes of both in-house and service-sector companies. The need for flexibility means that freelancers are still very much in existence, although they increasingly cooperate with each other, giving advice, exchanging information and distributing work, all of which is made easy by modems. These kinds of informal arrangements may approach those of the service-sector company. And yet there remains a very real frontier between the two sectors. Freelance networks or "letterbox" arrangements are usually too small in extension to attract major clients. But they are small enough to offer certain unspoken practical advantages like tax evasion, at least in recent years in Spain. The factors noted above are restricting this freelance sector in two main ways. On the one hand, specialization and rising client expectations are throwing certain amateur translators out of the market (as in the case of computer technology in the 1980s), particularly those who are not native speakers of the target language. On the other, the freelance workers who stay in the market usually take steps to better their work conditions. They can either put up their rates and keep just a few very professional clients or branch out into other activities that eventually take them away from translation, becoming international company representatives, editors, publishers, publicists and, less ambitiously, teachers of translation. It has become traditional to complain about the limited social recognition of translators, inadequate rates of pay, impossible deadlines and the health hazards of looking at a computer screen all day. But the market itself is reacting to these problems, first by isolating professionally adequate translators and putting a fairly high price on their products, and second by allowing these translators to switch over to more lucrative or prestigious endeavours. Inadequate translators might hang around in a semi-employment limbo for a while, but soon they too tend to find alternative positions using foreign languages, ranging from bilingual secretaries to the bad scholars who turn out to be brilliant businessmen. Either way, good or bad, few professional translators remain full-time translators throughout the whole of their employment history.

These then are five further factors that help profile the translation market in specialized fields: asymmetric information flows mean that the effects of specialization are compounded by restrictions to certain target languages; the demand for translations is not subject to unlimited expansion but will tend to give way to language-learning policies; flexibility is thus more valuable than in-depth knowledge in one particular field; specialized problems are most likely to be solved through teamwork arrangements; and even specialist translators are not likely to remain full-time translators for their whole career.

3. A free market for translations?

So far we have more or less assumed that the market for translations is rationally structured in terms of technology and its consequences, including the basic logics of supply and demand and international information flows. But no one can pretend that human rationality simply has to be deciphered from technology. Our markets are constantly redressed in terms of criteria involving social and cultural desirability. This leads to several quite specific considerations:

3.1. Most obviously, many literary translations are subsidized in one form or another. Government policies differ from country to country, particularly with respect to the proportions of intranslations to extranslations (Colas 1992). One might no longer praise the highly interventionist policies used in eastern European countries, but less interventionist strategies, including anything from the buying of books to the employment of literary translators as academics, remain more than symbolic throughout Europe. One of the literary translator's professional skills, alongside the ability to render style, has become expertise in the presentation of grant applications. These latter skills have to be learn somewhere along the line. And they have little to do with the constraints of any market economy

3.2. Non-market policies have also given rise to the largest collectivity of translators in history, the one working for the European Communities. The policy of conserving nine official languages provides employment for far more translators than could be justified by any market rationality, consuming some 40% of the EC's administrative budget (Coulmas 1991: 23). There has been a shift towards translating for "real needs" (Hoof-Haferkamp 1990), which would explain the evidence we have seen of relative non-translation correlating with specialization. But the general policy remains a question of political desire rather than economic calculations. Similarly, for purely cultural reasons, the Barcelona Olympics were obliged to adopt four official languages - Catalan, English, French and Spanish -, creating a translation demand that had no cost-effective relationship to Barcelona's sociolinguistic status as a bilingual city. Translation is sometimes a cultural policy option that cannot be deduced from strict market logics.

Strict economic rationalities are thus overridden by political priorities in the broad areas of literary translation and language policy. In both these fields, secondary factors increase the demand for translators. The result is a certain ideological dissociation of translators and policymakers from hard thought about how to make markets work.

4. How to train translators

The main thrust of my argument is by no means original. As is stated in the programme of the ESIT in Paris, the purpose of translator training should be "to produce not translators who are specialists, but specialists in translation". We should be teaching translation as a general set of communication skills that our students can apply and adapt to the changing demands of future markets, and indeed to changing professions. These skills should include obvious things like the use of personal computers, basic research procedures, a few ideas about public relations and marketing, and more than a bit of accountancy. As a general aim, having these areas packaged as "general communication skills" would seem to fit in with the various factors we have seen above, since the main lesson to be learnt from the market is that we really cannot learn many immediately applicable lessons from the market. The best we can do is to encourage flexibility and watch out for change. But if we then look at more specific market read-offs, particularly at those now being applied to translator training, several paradoxical relationships have to be accounted for:

4.1. Perhaps the most obvious paradox is the way the language-specific compounding of specialization tends to force translators to develop competence in several target languages, precisely as a means of diversifying against excessive specialization. A translator specialized in rendering computer technology from Catalan into English would be in such a narrow market as to remain mostly unemployed. Or again, a translator who has specialized in the translation of computer technology into Catalan would be in a far more fragile market position than one who can render the same technology into Catalan and Castilian. The greater the specialization of the market, the greater the translators' interest in diversifying their competence. When combined with the desirability of teamwork and active relationships with clients, this often means that two-way competence is required, at least with respect to oral communication.

4.2. The market factors listed above clearly have little to do with purely linguistic or literary problems. It was thus only to be expected that traditional philological training would eventually be unable to supply the skills needed by the market. The first reaction to this inadequacy was the development of highly specialized programmes for training interpreters. But the more recent and more interesting reaction, dating from the beginning of the 1980s, is the orientation of general translator training away from linguistic models and towards theories that incorporate clients, specific-purpose demands and quite radical translational modifications, viewing translation as the production of a new text rather than the reproduction of an old text. The approaches range from Justa Holz-Mänttäri's formalized theory of translative actions (1984) to Daniel Gouadec's very practical mixture of insight and advice (1989). The pedagogical applications can be anything from translating the one text in different ways for different client instructions, to problem-solving on the basis of actual case studies incorporating various factors like client, reader, time and restricted information sources (I used to explain my problems to the class to see if they could solve them for me). There can be little doubt that these general approaches provide appropriate principles for thinking about adequacy to market demands. But there are two interesting ambiguities here. First, this kind of theory most usefully provides name-for-things, but does so without extensive historical or quantitative analysis of the different ways translation has actually been used. One is ultimately left with opinions formulated as academic-sounding expertise, in a discourse close to the one I am using here. Second, and as a counterweight, although the very existence of these names-for-things can have normative implications (one should translate for a specific purpose, one should respect reader expectations), in-class discussion of these factors can also question the extent to which they should define our task. Our ethics need not be mercenary; the discussion and historical comparison of market factors need have normative effects (Toury 1992). In fact, the incorporation of market factors into our theories could make us adopt a critical approach to immediate market demands.

4.3. Beyond general theories and procedures, translator training must try to address the phenomenon of specialization. Are we to train translators for a specific market sector or should we simply make everyone do a bit of everything, then throw them into the water to see if they can swim? This is a major question in countries like Spain, where there is a stable unemployment rate of about 15%, rising to some 22% in the Canary Islands and particularly affecting first-job seekers. It might be impossible to predict exact future changes, but it is just as impossible to remain indifferent to the labour market that our students have to confront. A bit of local history might illustrate the problem.

When the Las Palmas translation school was set up in 1988, the idea was to specialize in commerce and tourism, since the island's economy depends on a huge port and a lot of tourists. Some even thought the translation school should be associated with a school of tourism and that teachers would work closely with a school of business studies, both at that time within the same university. But none of these plans were followed through. The failed linkage was due to inevitable political reasons, but also to one apparently very good practical reason: Las Palmas has virtually no demand for new translators in either of these sectors, since the port traffic is not significantly affected by specialization phenomena (it has not been expanding in recent years) and the tourist sector has generally adopted a policy of foreign-language learning. All my students could find local employment as teachers of English, but very few of them could work locally as full-time translators. So the idea of specializing in local sectors, which might seem quite logical, is defeated by the economics of alternative policies, as well as by the more obvious principle that the labour market for translation is not local. It was apparently wrong to seek long-term solutions in an insular context.

4.4. But would it have been entirely wrong to collaborate closely with the schools of tourism and business studies? Perhaps we had the right solution but we didn't know it at the time. My reasoning here has nothing to do with any direct read-off from the market situation, since the above factors should make it clear that there can be no direct read-off anyway. It is simply that the teaching of techniques for working within a specialized markets requires very developed case studies as examples, with the appropriate backgrounding and contact with experts. The elements for such examples are most easily found in local areas of specialization, whether or not these areas constitute a real labour market for translators. And as they work in one specialized area, students should ideally learn how to learn about further areas. Training for specialization thus requires the integration of specialized fields as actual content material, but not necessarily at any level beyond that of elaborate samples from a far more complex world.

4.5. The need for varied experience of specialized markets should be dealt with through extensive student exchange programmes, which are also the most appropriate way of ensuring adequate levels of linguistic competence and basic survival skills that cannot be taught in the classroom situation. The extreme importance of exchange programmes rarely finds full appreciation. They are still often badly organized, both materially and conceptually. There should be no need to point out that programmes like Erasmus and Lingua do not require any particular standardization of evaluation criteria or the imposition of pan-European study programmes. Such concepts were clearly negated by the Maastricht treaty (Art. 126), and correctly so. Just as trade blocks exist so that each region can specialize in its areas of greatest cost-effectiveness, so extensive student exchange programmes should encourage individual translation schools to associate with locally specialized sectors, quite independently of the actual labour market for translators. That is, local conditions should be referred to as examples of specialization, but not because of any actual market demands. This means that a German translation student with a particular interest in tourism might choose an exchange in Las Palmas, whilst a Canarian student interested in engineering could be better off spending some time in a German translation school. Exchange programmes could thus enable individual schools to play to their strengths. The end result should be a student who has at least experienced specialized markets in two or three areas and in two or three cultures. But this need not imply that the student is going to find employment in any specific local labour market.

4.6. A further paradox ensues from awareness that European translator training, and indeed European translation studies, are currently riding on the wave of an EC translation policy that cannot last. Policies are supposed to correct market inadequacies, but in this case market considerations will eventually have to correct the policy. Despite the democratic ideals often cited, Coulmas convincingly argues that "the EC has been used by member states to defend their languages' privileged position rather than being given the chance to produce a language policy of its own" (1990: 8). Rich countries have been prepared to pay for their linguistic nationalism. But the costs will become prohibitive with future enlargements of the EC. Some salvation might be sought from machine translation, although mostly in the highly specialized areas where language-learning strategies have been more efficient; all central resolutions will of course have to be translated; but with respect to working languages at least, the general over-use of translation will still have to change.

Translator training should be prepared for that change. We should be aware that most of our students are not likely to become full-time professional translators, that those who do find such employment are likely to change to an associated profession in the course of their career, and that translation is in any case an imperfect long-term communications policy. An adequate training programme should thus not focus too exclusively on the merely technical aspects of translation, nor too readily assume that the worlds of clients and readers are only for clients and readers. On the contrary, extended exposure to quite high degrees of specialization in real-life situations should be considered highly desirable, even beyond the level of case-study examples. Further, institutional mechanisms should be created so that interested students can combine a degree in translation with formal training in associated professions, including double degrees if so desired. It should be remembered that the market for translators is not the only one interested in our students, nor is it always the most lucrative, lasting or fulfilling.

I have suggested six ways in which market factors are or should be affecting the training of translators, each of them dependent on slightly paradoxical relations between education and market demands. Briefly, the arguments propose that market factors require translators to work in several target languages or at least to have two-way oral competence so as to counter excessive specialization; these factors stop us from trying to supply strictly local labour markets; they force us to use areas of specialization as examples and indeed to diversify our translation schools; they should encourage us to offer students as wide a vision as possible of their future areas of employment.

Most of this is only common sense. In times of uncertainty, a certain degree of diversification is the best policy. But there are also quite ideological reasons for distancing any strict market rationality. All of our students, whether they become translators or not, enter a vague intercultural community, a group of professionals whose work it is to promote and carry out relations between different cultures. This community is of extreme importance now, at a time of very volatile and often conflictual international relations. As I have argued elsewhere (1993), intermediaries require more than technical expertise; they require a few of the ideals of a general humanistic education, able to transcend the outlooks of their cultures and professions of origin. That is why translator training in Spain is perhaps in danger of becoming too specific. We are churning out many technicians but few real thinkers. Ideally, students should be able to do more than find work in the market. They should eventually improve the intercultural relations they are engaged in. And that means having a few ideas about improving the market itself.


* An early version of this paper was presented to a summer-school seminar on The Translator, Translation and Translation Studies in the Market Economy, Bratislava, 13-16 September 1992.



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