[Letters] Translation industry should be regulated

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[Letters] Translation industry should be regulated

I agree that regulation kills competition and limits profits in a profit-driven economy. If I were to sell anything, I would rather set my own prices and conditions based on the laws of supply and demand. The translation industry is a slightly more technical, thus a more complicated business.

In today’s world, only international organizations take translation seriously. While international organizations like the UN, OECD or NATO hire translators according to strict rules and process translation strictly, most countries are more lenient. As a result, anyone can translate, anywhere, at any time and the results are usually poor quality of translation.

I grew up trilingual and tri-cultural, having lived in the United States, France and Colombia, with speaking fully culturally competent English, French and Spanish while growing up. I majored in English and Spanish in college in French university. I was convinced that few people could compete with me as a translator.

After college, I decided to enter the translation business. After realizing that companies usually don’t pay translators well, I decided to become a freelance translator. Then came the big surprise.

I was competing with translators who were students from countries as remote as Nicaragua, Zimbabwe, Togo or Pakistan. While most American professional translators charge anywhere from 20 to 40 cents a word, outsourced translators charge usually less than 1 cent per word.

My surprise did not end there. Many companies resort to what is called “crowdsourcing”. Crowdsourcing is a practice where companies post a document on the internet and offer “netizens” to translate the document for free. Many of those “netizens”, out of boredom or in order to practice their translation skills, do translate, sometimes as quickly as within 24 hours.

Friends and common sense told me that French, English and Spanish were among the most commonly spoken languages in the world, by a diversity of populations, some in economically developed countries, some in developing countries and that I should learn a more “isolated” language.

I thus decided to learn Korean, as I thought I would have no competition with Korean in the translation business. I was well aware that there are large bicultural Korean diasporas in Anglophone countries, but I thought I would face little competition with French and Spanish. But then came another surprise.

Once I learned Korean, it turns out I was again competing with translators who were college students, this time Korean students who majored in French and Spanish. Though the quality of their translations is sometimes despicable, they are a cheap source of labor for companies.

Korea, the most wired country in the world, resorts to crowdsourcing like no other country. Several clubs and internet cafes offer free translation services by “netizens” who gladly translate anything from love letters to legal contracts.

The result? A lot of the translations found in Korea or elsewhere are barely intelligible with its readership. Misunderstandings often occur, and expats of foreign businessmen are often get “lost in translation”.

There is no official certification for translators in Korea and a handful of Korean universities offer translation degrees or certificates. Most Korean translation agencies hire Korean translators to translate into languages they are not fluent in, when most countries resort exclusively to native speakers to translate into other languages. When Korean translation agencies do hire foreign native-speaking translators, they do not sponsor working visas.

Translators should be certified through examinations and should work in registered business settings. Minimum and maximum rates should be set to protect translators and their clients. Companies should not be allowed to resort to crowdourcing. The use of machine translation, which does horrible translations, should be banned. Finally, translators and their clients should be bound by legal contracts and translators should be paid on time.


By Akli Hadid, a former student in Korea now residing in Algeria. He can be reached at [hadid.akli@gmail.com]

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