Bursting the Bubble
Translator realities around the world
Andrew Morris is a freelance translator and writer who also works for ProZ.com as head of messaging. Born in South Wales, he has lived in 12 countries and studied seventeen languages, and is now based in Andalusia, Spain.
Anyone venturing into the online translator space in 2014, as I did for the first time, could have been forgiven for thinking that translation was the preserve of mostly white, relatively affluent, middle-class professionals who lived in North America, Western Europe, and Australia — and that applied to both the rank and file and the various luminaries who led the field.
The assertive tone, the discussions about what were “acceptable” rates, and the repeated chanting of certain mantras all reflected this perspective. To cite just one example, we were assured by all and sundry that translation should only ever be into your mother tongue. Now while there may well be a strong case for that in the most popular and commercially viable languages, with their armies of qualified and experienced translators, little mention was made of colleagues working with Rohingya, Quechua, Tagalog, or Twi, for whom translating both ways was simply a given. It was as if those languages did not exist on the map. They were, in more than one sense, whited out.
If the subject of the Global South ever came up, it was seen as something of a nuisance — these were countries that undercut “our” rates and lowered the bar on quality, led by the likes of China, India, and Egypt. The fact that there were translators trying to make a living in all three countries, as well as in dozens of other similar contexts, barely merited a mention. They simply didn’t count.
For someone like me who had spent over a decade in a former career in education living in Bangladesh, China, Turkey, Eritrea, and Somaliland, this Western-centric attitude proved troubling, but there was little to be done, apart from sporadic attempts to raise awareness in comments when the occasion arose.
Fast-forward five-plus years, and two events conspired to create an opening for change. One is that I joined the ProZ.com team and was assigned the task of breathing new life into their Facebook group, which was large but relatively inactive at the time. This brought me into contact with translators from Mozambique to Mongolia, and Venezuela to Vietnam. The group doubled in size within a year, and is now over 46,000 strong. The second factor was the pandemic: the fact that travel had now become a pipedream inspired an idea for a series of Translation Postcards — feature articles about translators from throughout the world, focusing on their daily lives, backstories, aspirations, and challenges.
While the Postcards are free of any political or ideological agenda, and we’ve also featured fascinating stories from translators in cities such as Rome, New York, Brussels and Munich, the real innovation of the series has been to shine a light on the daily lives of translators in countries hitherto unheard of in most translation forums.
Take Thomas Chahweta in Zimbabwe, who grew up as one of 11 children in an impoverished family. He first became a schoolteacher, before volunteering and being trained as part of a Jehovah’s Witness translation program. Using their internet service in his lunchtime breaks, he discovered ProZ and then managed to get enough work to buy his first ever computer — no mean feat in a country ravaged by hyperinflation. Now he can earn three times a teacher’s monthly salary with a single text from an international agency.
Or Dachiny Ewekengha in the Congo Republic, a former hotel receptionist who insisted to his boss that she try him out as a translator. She discovered what he already knew; he had talent. Incidentally, shortly after featuring in a Postcard, he was offered a job as a remote project manager in a Swiss agency, and wasted no time seizing the opportunity.
The Postcards also give us insights into countries that are either overlooked or demonized in the media. I “traveled” to Iran to meet Parastoo Khoshpasand, a multilingual, cosmopolitan and liberal-minded woman who presented a vivid contrast to the image we are fed of a radically conservative country. In Hue, I talked to Lan Hoang Bao, who painted an interesting picture of the way the language has changed in Vietnam itself, while that of the huge diaspora has remained static, and by now curiously archaic. In passing he mentioned the war, known to Vietnamese as the “American War.”
There are frequent observations on life around the world as well as into language. Edith Koumtoudji, a Cameroonian postdoctoral student and translator living in Johannesburg, laughed when I asked how she might be treated these days by a white security guard: “There are no white security guards.” In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cmilja Milosevic, who lost her own brother in the Bosnian war, shared her view on how peace has returned to village life, despite the fact that tensions from the conflict-ridden 1990s are never too far from the surface.
In addition to such wide-ranging reflections, the series has also brought us a panoply of impressive characters. Norhan Mohammed, an entrepreneurial young Egyptian setting up her own company in a country where it’s never been easy for women to strike out independently. Dalih Sembiring in Indonesia, a literary translator whose day begins with 4 am morn-ing prayers at the mosque. Sayda de Pineda, a Guatemalan living in Las Vegas along with three generations of her family; Marlys Estrada in Cuba, where internet access can often cost more than the monthly wage of a civil servant; or Zena Alzinc in Syria, working with her husband as freelance translators in a country still blighted by religious tension, where power cuts are frequent and the trade in back-up generators is dominated by warlords.
Despite the differences in language pairs, age, experience, and context, there is much that unites all my interviewees: a love of and talent for language, a natural resilience and independent-mindedness as freelancers, a desire to do good, well remunerated work, a need for solidarity in a solitary profession, and above all an aspiration to a better life.
It’s been a great privilege to meet all these colleagues, pop-ping up on their screens, seeing their living rooms as we’ve interacted online, and then sharing their stories with the world.
One on level, talking with all these people offers a splash of local colour and hint of armchair travel. But the deeper aim remains to raise awareness in the Western bubble of just how global the profession is, and how similar we translators are, irrespective of ethnicity or context. If it achieves that objective, it will all have been worthwhile.