Community Lives: Language community identity

How often these days are we asked for proof of identification? Doctors, hospitals, airlines, traffic cops and even some stores all want to verify that we are who we say we are, to establish that our identity is correct. But identities extend past the individual. We have national identities, group identities, corporate identities and so on. Our friends in marketing are currently in love with ideas like platform identity that define a presence beyond branding. And we have community identities. It is one of the zeitgeists of our current lives.

Academic research and business imperatives have invested heavily in understanding what communities mean to us. All branches of the social sciences seem to have had input as have management disciplines across the board. And yet for all this activity, are we truly closer to defining what community identity actually is? It seems fair to say that whatever it is does not seem to arise naturally; rather it seems to be derived from a mixture of elements fabricated by communities themselves. This leads us to ask whether our language community identity should be based on what we want it to be, or whether it should be what seems natural for it to be. This is the distinction between an organic structure that grows freely, or a planned one restricted by what is deemed feasible by the members.

So, what can we safely say about the identity of the language community? Those of us who are part of it may have a good idea, but what of all those other people and groups out there who display a blank look when we tell them that we work in the language community? The uncomfortable truth is that our community is especially difficult to define. We are probably the most diverse community on the planet. But our skill tree is not even well understood by ourselves. We are a rich community of personalities, nationalities and skills, so no wonder it’s difficult to put us in a box. However, if we are to receive due recognition and an appropriate position in the pyramid of human endeavors, we must present ourselves to the world in a way that commands respect and due recognition for the work we do.

In the language community we have a rich mix of individual traits with which we collaborate in an equally rich mass of groups. The relationships we form can be based on the languages we use, the skills we employ, the subjects we translate, even the tools we use. Professional bodies like the American Translators Association do a splendid job of looking out for our interests, but what about the other side of the fence and the corporate clients who want our services? If there are bridges there, they seem to carry mostly one-way traffic. We have to admit that the commercial imperative of enterprise culture places monetization at the top of the corporate tree. Generating income is what businesses do. However, the economic equations that are applied to different skills do not seem to favor language services. We’re all too familiar with stories of computer professionals, for example, lavished with perks: free commuter buses; free food; free time to pursue personal projects — not to mention hefty salaries, health insurance and so on. I wonder how many translators can claim even a fraction of those enviable rewards.

How do we explain this jarring disconnect? Comparing the skillsets of translators with other groups is fairly fruitless. Translators tend to be self-starters, certainly models of self-motivation. Many are multilingual by their own hard work and passion for languages. Many acquire language specialties such as medical or legal skills. Many are self-employed and have to deal with all the headaches that can bring. There are also social conundrums like working in isolation while dealing primarily in communication with others.

There’s another barrier to linguists receiving due recognition for the professionalism of their skills and that derives from the fact that speech is a universal human trait. Everyone speaks a native language and the consequence of this is that people take translation for granted. In fact, it is more likely that interpreting is undervalued as bewildered tourists seek directions to the nearest Starbucks or monolingual business people flail around looking for the local way of saying, “I need this order delivered yesterday!” What linguists do in effortlessly (to observers) transforming one language into another while accurately conveying meaning is overshadowed by the fact that they are involved in solving problems. With the emphasis placed strongly on problem solving, the linguistic elements are often lost. Who, outside of language practitioners themselves, appreciates the skills applied in rendering a target translation? Translators and interpreters have their own personal style, their own preferences in working with language pairs. There is a hidden art involved in this work as accuracy, currency, fluency and other traits are brought to bear on an end translation. Certainly there are aesthetic considerations with computer programming and verbose code will attract scathing criticism from more adept coders. Good, tight, bug-free code is still a defining characteristic of the computing community. Quality counts, although it isn’t always delivered as marketing departments scream for new apps and updates to be delivered ASAP. At least we have that in common.

However, in the language community we work with different quality considerations. If a project involves localizing in 70 languages, the project management involved in ensuring that meaning is consistently rendered is a massive, intensive task. This brings us to another impediment to defining our community and that arises from the technology we now use to help us complete highly complex tasks. Human translation versus MT! When anybody can use Google Translate or Bing Translator or one of many other tools to do the work, why even bother to consider human translation? It doesn’t occur to many people to ask where the translation came from in the first place, how was the MT engine trained? It is not unknown for corporate ventures and some MT advocates to regard translators’ work as their own intellectual property to do with as they please. Why is recognition of the ownership of translated work so difficult to find at times? A simple question and the simple answer is that it’s all about money. Large sums would have to be paid if due recognition were granted and that no doubt would affect the feasibility of global-scale, automated language services. But there is something more insidious here that marginalizes linguists, and that is simply that some entities ensure their lowly status in order to render them exploitable. Nor should we forget that there is always someone out there who will undercut prices just to get the work, and they will get the contract even if the quality they produce is third-rate. But let’s not let a few bad apples taint our vision.

Our colleges, universities and other educational establishments do a phenomenal job of turning out a constant stream of new graduates, qualified in language, technical and management skills to augment the language industry. Some benefit from associations with corporate ventures, but what do new graduates do to make a start as language professionals in an environment without a clear-cut identity? Even new graduates finding positions in businesses can be left with a sink-or-swim situation as on-the-job training is rarely available. The pressures on all professionals can be intense and the intimidation that new entrants feel requires steely ambition and mental toughness from day one. If new graduates are lucky they might find a position working with an older, established professional who will mentor them in exchange for hammering out boilerplate translations. It’s not ideal, but it produces results.

Is this the situation that we want to define us as a professional community? Certainly there are coding “sweatshops” that are the equivalent, but given that the tech industry currently has several billion dollars worth of open positions across the country, decent coders stand a good chance of finding a worthwhile job if they look hard enough. Can we say the same for linguists? I’m afraid we can’t. In spite of the wealth of superb language courses, there is a disconnect between teaching materials and the materials that industry and commerce need to have translated. As these demanding needs of industry and commerce proliferate and the global marketplace expands, we can easily see that there is a shortfall that the language community will find impossible to make up without some far-reaching changes.

Experience and first-hand observation of the language industry at work tells me that we lack cohesion. Our community is not broken or dysfunctional or anything as drastic as that, but it does need to be drawn together more effectively. Mentoring is an obvious way of bringing new blood into the community. Many established pros are willing to help the community in this way because they understand that the skill shortage among linguists is no longer impending, it’s with us now. The new members on the other side of the equation are eager to learn and usually extremely grateful for the chance to work with experienced translators.

Mentoring also works well in other disciplines like programming, but they also have the benefit of programs like coding academies. I do not believe that we have anything like the same resources for translators and interpreters, but surely if some of the innovators in our community gave it some thought, they could devise a means of providing training for our members. There are massive open online courses on many subjects, but are they training students to the level of sophistication demanded by business? If some are, I’d love to hear about them so I could help spread the word.

It also behooves our community members to embrace the technologies that now support our work. With the proliferation of free open source software, the opportunities for all members of the community, even experienced members who work regularly, are vast. The more we network, the more we extend our connections in the community.

The strength of our community and consequently the nature of its identity are dependent on all of us as members of it. We do need to muster a strong commitment and engage in making the community work. Ideally we would achieve this with such efficiency that outsiders would yearn to join us.