Samuel Murray, Translator - English into Afrikaans | Article index
The following article was written for the "jobs" supplement of the South African newspaper The Star, and would have been published on St Jerome's Day of 2001. The article never made it to print because the editor felt he could do a better job of it. He didn't.
The subheadings were added for this online edition, and does not form part of the original article.
Did you know translators have a patron saint? That's right, St Jerome is the patron saint of translators. And did you know there's an international day of awareness for translators? Right again, 30 September is International Translators' Day. Yet isn't it strange that despite this annual event, to many people the profession of translation is still very much a mystery.
In many overseas countries, translation plays a more prominent role than in South Africa. In the European Union a significant portion of the budget is spent on language services. One would think that a country with eleven official languages would also spend quite a lot more on translation. But the fact is that in this country translation is often viewed as a subset of either secretarial and administration work, or journalism and newspaper work. Internationally, however, translation is a profession ruled by strict codes of practice and conduct.
In South Africa anyone can claim to be a translator. There is no central register of translators, there are no minimum qualifications or requirements to work as a translator, and there is no prescribed code of conduct. Translators may volunarily register with the South African Translators' Institute (SATI), an organisation that aims to regulate the translation industry, but there is an annual registration fee, and some translators choose not to join the SATI, and instead believe that a good reputation is better than mere membership to an institute.
The SATI also offers translator accreditation examinations in various language combinations. Accreditation offers advantages to both translators and clients. On the one hand it gives translators some kind of proof of their abilities, and on the other hand it makes it easier for new clients to distinguish professional translators from fly-by-night hit-and-miss "translators".
A few decades ago many companies could afford to employ translators full-time. Recent years saw the notion that translation is nothing more than an administrative task cause many companies to either use outsourced language services, or delegate the task of translation to their secretaries and PR officers. In fact, some translators found themselves relocated to the marketing department or office assistant pool in a move to cut costs. Often companies fail to realise the full potential of language services, and often it shows in their letters, reports and company documents.
Many translators are jacks of all trades, and masters of some. Large translation departments in advertising agencies and newspapers also perform other language related tasks, such as copy writing, letter writing, press release writing, proofreading, campaign consulting, and creative work. Many freelance translators also offer additional services, such as graphics work, small scale marketing campaigning, web site design, pamphlet and newsletter writing, proofreading for students, and language advice.
Not all translators are qualified to do all kinds of work. For the translation of several classes of legal documents, identification papers and various types of certificates such as high school diplomas and university degree papers, the client needs the services of a sworn translator. Sworn translation is a highly specialised field. To become a sworn translator, the candidate has to pass an examination set by either SATI or any other sworn translator.
Translators may also opt to specialise in certain fields. Although a general translator may accept to do a highly technical translation, it is often more productive to appoint a specialist translator for a higher fee. Fields of specialisation include financial translation, legal translation, medical translation, scientific or technological translation, etc. A specialist translator may actually have studied in his field, or he may simply be an avid hobbyist in that field.
People using translation services for the first time are often surprised by two aspects of the work: the time a translation takes to complete, and the fee the translator asks for his service. Any freelance translator can tell stories of company executives who want full company reports translated in an hour, and of college students who expect their end term projects to be proofread for R100. And although you might find the odd student translator willing to stoop to R10 per page, or to churn out 10 pages work per hour under extreme pressure, the reality is somewhat different.
Since translation fees are not fixed by law, and not even the SATI sets minimum or maximum rates, it can be difficult to determine what translators earn and what freelance price should be considered reasonable. In recent surveys by the SATI, freelance general translation rated at about 25c per word on average. This works out to between R75 and R100 per page. Although proofreading is generally charged for by the hour instead of per word, proofreading rates typically work out to about one third of translation rates.
A fast translator may translate between three to five pages of general text per hour. Work of a technical nature takes longer, and costs more. Even experienced translators will spend quite a bit of time doing research while translating technical texts. Although some company translators accept freelance work on the side, it will take longer because their own jobs always take precedence.
Since just about anyone can claim to be a translator, many people consider translation work a viable option when they're unemployed. Any freelance translator will tell you, however, that potential clients seldom respond to advertisements in the press. A freelance translator typically take up to a year to establish himself in the business, because most contracts are obtained through a network of satisfied previous clients and referred clients. This is also the reason why a would-be translator has to offer the very best service from day one. Even so, word of one bad translation job travels faster and further than ten jobs done well.
Translators lucky enough to find employment at educational institutions, newspapers, advertising agencies or other large companies can expect salaries similar to that of office assistants, PR officers or graphic designers... except without the perks. Translators don't work for commission, they don't receive travel allowance and they seldom face an empty in-box.
Translators are often asked what kind of training is necessary for becoming a translator. Again, because this industry is not regulated, there is no single correct answer. Future legislation might require a full bachelors degree with one or more translation diplomas offered by some South African universities, or alternatively a three-year specialised diploma at one of the technikons, such as the National Diploma in Language Practice.
Just like in any other profession, continued training is essential. Some university diplomas are accessible to people without a bachelors degree, and the SATI and other organisations hold regular workshops. No translator can work without good dictionaries - they are his tools. Nor can translators work in isolation. It is important for translators to network with other translators, to exchange ideas and to learn from each other.