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The Status of the Translation Profession in the European Union


Anthony Pym, François Grin, Claudio Sfreddo & Andy L.J. Chan


London & New York: Anthem, 2013

Hardcover. 190 p. ISBN 978-0857281265. £60.00 / $99.00


Reviewed by Susan Pickford

Université Paris-Sorbonne



The Status of the Translation Profession in the European Union is part of a small but growing body of research drawing on the recent “sociological turn” in Translation Studies to focus not on translation as a process of linguistic and cultural transfer, long the major preoccupation of the field, but on translators as agents with their own specific range of habitus. The multi-authored volume draws on the expertise of contributors from the Intercultural Studies Group at the Rovira i Virgili University, Tarragona, Spain, the European Society for Translation Studies, and the Observatoire Économies Langues Formation at the University of Geneva to produce a work at the crossroads between sociology and economics, studying translators as a professional body in their own right and in particular how traditional status signals within the profession are evolving and the impact these developments have had on the marketplace for translation. It is a brief work: the main body of chapters is just 122 pages long, followed by thirty pages of appended material, with additional material such as country fact sheets, interim reports from various stages of the project, and workshop programmes available from a website hosted by the Intercultural Studies Group.

The principal challenge facing the academic reviewer of this work lies in identifying an appropriate frame for evaluating it in the light of the work's intended readership. The version received for review is published in the Anthem European Studies series, devoted to “rigorous and thorough works of scholarship and research on the subjects of European culture, history and politics […] for both scholars and students”. Yet as the title page reveals, the publication is a “report […] funded by the European Commission's Directorate-General for Translation”, and it is in fact available as a download, suggesting that the project was driven by a commissioning body and readership interested in issues of cultural policy on the ground: the website's Facebook page notes that the team behind the project is now working on a second report from the directorate on translation and language learning. The work's status is thus ambiguous to a degree: while paratextual material including the editorial collection, notes, bibliography and cover recommendations by leading academics in the field suggest the frame of reading is that of a work of academic scholarship, other material, such as the final chapter of recommendations and the appendices listing translator-client contact services and translator associations, place the work closer to an official policy document. As such, it is unclear to what extent the reviewer should expect the work to comply with the standards of academic scholarship, for instance in referencing and acknowledging earlier work in the same field. Whatever the project's original skopos, however, it would have been helpful for the published work to clarify its research remit and the terms of its collaboration with the European Commission, rather than requiring those interested to seek out the information on a website mentioned in brief on the title page, where it is all too easy to overlook.

This is not to say that the work is without interest – far from it. It sets out to explore how status is signalled within the translation profession across Europe, by means of typical markers of professionalisation such as the existence of associations, their ability to act as gatekeepers, and the role of accreditation. It begins with a chapter laying out the methodology behind the study, defining the key terms of status, signalling, certification, and accreditation, and outlining the process of collecting data for the work. The examples given of recent attempts by institutes and associations to formalise status signals [1], the online commodification of certification [3] and the discussion of how adverse selection affects the market by forcing competent translators at the top end of the price scale out of the profession [5] are particularly interesting. Some reference to earlier work in the field, such as that done by Rakefet Sela-Sheffy on markers of distinction in the translation profession, would perhaps have enhanced the chapter's theoretical framework at this point.

The second chapter focuses on the results of the data gathered to explore the extent to which various countries across Europe recognise and regulate translation as a profession. It draws on such data as the relative impact of qualifications and training, the existence or otherwise of barriers to entering the profession, and the role of translator associations. Some of the data appears to be incomplete: section 2.1.5, for example, fails to acknowledge the existence of powerful signals of professional status for literary translators in France, where the profession has had its own social security status (AGESSA) since 1978, INSEE code since 1982, pension rights since 2004, and can access a specific tax regime (“article 100 bis du Code des Impôts: possibilité de déclarer en BNC”). The project's Facebook page lists a number of revisions and updates to the data in the chapter. I shall return to chapter three later; chapters four, five, six, and seven are devoted respectively to sociological modelling, exploring issues such as the role of translators' associations, the feminisation of the profession, and the impact of the part-time and freelance models; economic modelling, including information on rates of pay; policy options for enhancing status signals and whether signalling should function as a commodity or a service; and, finally, a brief chapter of recommendations intended to improve status signalling mechanisms.

Turning back some fifty pages, chapter three consists of a series of eight case studies, five of which focus on European countries (Germany, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, and the UK) and three, for contrast, on the US, Canada, and Australia. The choice of case studies highlights one of the principal criticisms I would level against the book. Why include three case studies for non-European countries when many equally interesting case studies from within Europe are overlooked? None of the case studies focus on Scandinavia, for instance, despite the fact that Norway had achieved such a high degree of professionalisation in the translation sector by the early 1990s that the literary translators' association was able to organise a strike over working conditions. Similarly, France would surely have been a strong candidate for an interesting case study, having two distinct administrative models for the translation profession, one pragmatic and the other literary.

The reason for overlooking these potentially rich case studies becomes clear only from the website, which states that the project “brings together and harmonizes the available information on the status of non-literary written translators in the European Union”. This leads me to the crux of my criticism of the work, encapsulated by the work's title, which suggests that “the translation profession” is homogeneous across Europe. It is far from clear that this is the case. The work makes little attempt to define what being a member of the translation profession actually encompasses. In some countries (not to mention the popular imagination), translation elides with interpreting; in others, the two practices have achieved a considerable degree of professional autonomy, with status unequally distributed across the two. Elsewhere, the same is true of literary and pragmatic translation. As the authors acknowledge in passing [3], status signals are not the same across the board depending on the branch of translation practice: the status signals in translating literary fiction, for example, have a complex relationship with professionalism, symbolic rather than economic capital being the main reward.

Furthermore, despite the website's claim to exclude literary translation from its purview, this is far from clear in the print version, which includes, for instance, literary translators' associations in its appendices and refers to income data from CEATL, the Conseil Européen des Associations de Traducteurs Littéraires. The decision to exclude “literary” translation from the data may well have been more amply justified in the research project's original remit, but it would have been useful to see the rationale laid out more explicitly in the published work. As it stands, it is not clear to me that such an exclusion is justified. In the case of a country such as France, with a central language and a strong tradition of State support for culture, pragmatic and literary (or, more properly, editorial) translation have diverged sufficiently to have developed their own distinctive status signalling practices, in which case the two can be studied as separate entities. In other instances where the pluri-employed “portfolio worker” model [79] predominates, the two practices remain closely allied, with a considerable overlap in practitioners between the two. The distinction between literary and pragmatic translation, which appears to be based on an elision between the broad field of translation for the publishing market and the translation of literary fiction [3], is thus an artificial one to a certain extent.

One final quibble and one comment before concluding. Given the frequency with which Philip Parker's 2009-2014 World Outlook for Translation and Interpretation Services is cited as a reference, it would have been useful to have a brief paragraph outlining the nature of the study far earlier in the book: as it is, it is only described in Appendix B. I must add that it strikes me as methodologically risky to base so much of the book's argument on what is acknowledged to be a “particularly blunt” tool that makes “very naïve” assumptions [132], particularly in the light of the work's relative lack of engagement with the question of how professional translation interacts with the vast hinterland of non-professional translation. As a final comment, readers unfamiliar with economic theory would do well to gird their loins before tackling the chapter on economic modelling and appendices D and E on “types and use of economic perspectives” and “equilibrium on the translation market”, which present mathematical formulas underlying the analyses presented in the report with little concession to the, presumably, non-expert nature of the readership.

As I stated at the outset of this review, it is perhaps rather unfair to judge a work that began life as a report destined for the European Commission by the standards of academic scholarship. The work's strengths are those of its origins as a commissioned research project, lying in the wealth of statistical data that it has brought together, its focus on the sometimes unpredictable way the market reacts to intangible values such as status and quality, and its clear policy recommendations aimed at improving mechanisms for signalling status, incorporating not just the official languages of the European Union but also those of major trading partners and immigrant languages, where, as rightly noted, public policy is “scandalously absent” [121]. As such, it is a valuable addition to the sum of knowledge on a profession that all too often remains invisible.


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