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Lack of status – are translators the authors of their own misfortune?

By Marielle Godbout, C. Tran. (ATIO)

MarielleGodbout 2Occupational prestige

Work is a central component of an individual’s identity. “What do you do?” is usually the first thing we enquire about when meeting someone new. The work we do defines us throughout our adult life, even in retirement. How their work is perceived in society is therefore a central concern for most adults, given that to a large extent this perception influences not only our sense of accomplishment but also our ability to influence the world around us.

Sociologists refer to this perception as occupational prestige. The first study of occupational prestige was done by George S. Counts in 1925. Although extremely limited in scope, Counts' study demonstrated that there was a clear, agreed upon ranking of the social status of occupations in society. Almost a century later, contemporary studies show that, while the spread between the highest ranked and the lowest ranked has narrowed considerably, a hierarchy of occupations still exists (Goyder 2009). Contemporary evaluations of occupational prestige take two broad factors into account: an economic factor comprised of the material rewards associated with an occupation, as demonstrated by the standard of living the occupation can support; and a sociocultural factor, which consists of the value of the contribution a given occupation makes to the good functioning of society (Ollivier 2000).

The occupational prestige of translation as an occupation is widely lamented as sadly lacking. Although translation has failed to attract the radar of sociologists, it has become a topic of increasing interest among translation studies scholars, particularly since the turn of the century. Whether they look at translation as an occupation in Israel (Sela-Sheffy and Shlesinger 2008), Finland (Ruokonen 2016), Canada (Godbout 2009), or across the globe (Katan 2009), the message remains the same – translation is struggling along as an invisible, unappreciated, poorly remunerated and, consequently, low status occupation nestled somewhere near the bottom rung of white-collar work.

Why that should still be the case today in, of all places, Canada remains something of an enigma. After all, forty-plus years have passed since the Official Languages Act made translation imperative at the federal level, and highly desirable at every other level. More than a quarter century has gone by since translation gained legal status as a profession with a reserved title, first in Ontario and then in New Brunswick, Quebec and British Columbia. And yet translators and their professional associations are still struggling to get recognition.

Translation as a semi-profession

In Translation in Canada: occupation or profession?, Godbout (2009)  determined that translation, according to sociological theory, is a semi-profession (Etzioni 1969), that is, an occupation that exhibits most of the characteristics of a profession, but to a lesser degree. The characteristics of a profession have been studied by many sociologists (Greenwood 1957, 1980; Goode 1960; Pavalko 1971; Freidson 2001). Generally, those characteristics include: extensive university training in a discipline grounded in a theoretical body of knowledge; control of training for and access to the profession by the members; a code of ethics enforced by the profession; and acknowledgement of the profession’s authority by society at large.

How well does translation rank against these criteria? A fully developed academic discipline does exist and translation studies programs are available at universities across the nation. Professional associations are not present in every province and territory and only four have obtained legal authority from their respective jurisdiction. Access to the occupation is wide open and does not require formal training. Control of access is limited to the reserved title, whose existence is not widely known and whose value is only beginning to be recognized as an asset by employers and translation service providers (Bowker 2004). Codes of ethics are in place. However, the authority of translators within society is questionable. Most people still believe that bilingualism is the only requirement necessary to be a translator. As Abi Aboud (2010) so aptly puts it, “la traduction dans l'esprit du public est avant tout un simple travail de transfert et le traducteur n’est qu’un dictionnaire vivant”.

The invisibility and subservience of translators

The above raises the issue of whether there might be intrinsic factors within the very nature of translation that contribute to its current lack of prestige as an occupation. Two characteristics of translators that may contribute to this lack of prestige have been identified in translation studies research. Venuti (1986, 1995) has highlighted how, in contemporary Western society, the demand that translation read fluently results in the translator remaining invisible. A worker whose work is invisible, and therefore absent from the collective consciousness, can not readily occupy a position of prestige along the occupational continuum. Simeoni (1998), in discussing the translator’s habitus, has shown how, in the course of training and working as a translator, norms are internalized that unconsciously control how the translator works. One of these norms is subservience, which throughout history and today in contemporary culture is fully assumed by translators. In the 21st century’s competitive economy, subservience is not conducive to a higher status on the occupational scale. The continuing presence of both of these factors among translators was confirmed in a worldwide survey of translators conducted by Katan (2009) who noted their “voluntary servitude” and their acknowledgement of lack of status.

The road ahead

Although increasing the occupational prestige of translation represents a significant challenge, there are a number of fronts on which translators and their associations could work. In order to gain public recognition, translators will need to increase their self-esteem, trade their image of subservience for one of a highly skilled professional service and come out of the shadows into the limelight. The publicity campaign recently launched by OTTIAQ in an attempt to get the corporate sector to recognize the advantages of using the services of qualified translators is a step in the right direction. Translators’ associations could reconsider the criteria for admission to the reserved title by limiting access to translators who have received professional training in the field of translation. It is simply unthinkable in today’s knowledge economy to believe that an intellectual and highly skilled occupation like translation can simply be learned on the job through practice, when even blue-collar trades require formal training. Finally, both translators and their associations need to become proactive in publicizing the value of their work to the good functioning of society. In a world that has become a global village, translation is essential to enable the smooth flow of communication among individuals, institutions, businesses and governments. Translation is a critical function in today’s society and only translators can ensure that their contribution is acknowledged and rewarded accordingly.

Marielle Godbout is currently working on her Ph.D. in Translation Studies at the University of Ottawa. Her thesis addresses the professional identity formation of Canadian translators. Committed to the advancement of the translation profession through academic research, she has presented at a number of international conferences since 2005. She can be reached at and



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