Time changes everything, especially when it comes to old professions like translation. The act of translation has been around for centuries, being formalized around 405 AD, when Saint Jerome translated the bible from Hebrew and Greek to Latin. But it was a common practice even before that.
However, religion really boosted the importance and need for translation services, turning it into an official and highly respectable profession. Can you imagine translating bibles one by one, word by word? Does it not look daunting and amazing at the same time?
And so, it officially began the art of translation. However, unlike many other professions, translation services remained barely unchanged until the industrial revolution, when we finally developed machines that could quickly print text and create several copies.
The glamour of old school translation
People often get mislead about the glamour of translation. They associate translation with old dictionaries, culturally rich books, brainstorming and conversations between interesting people. This idea comes from several movies naturally, especially those focused on the 18th and 19th centuries, where translators are portrayed in a nice light.
Obviously, there is some truth to this. Not too long ago, a couple of centuries ago, in fact, translators were people with higher education at a time where people had no education at all. They would be friends with important, smart people, nobility.
But the work method was in fact like we see in the movies. Tons of old books, dictionaries, brainstorming, all that. We also have to consider that a few hundred years ago, deadlines were not as crazy as today. There was no “I want this now”. Artists had months or years to work on stuff. If they were stuck, they would often think about it for days.
However, there is one thing that has never changed. Translators worked and still work from the shadows. They do amazing work, research immensely, come up with clever ideas to transfer content from one language to the other, and they barely get any recognition. Have you ever asked yourself about the translator’s name that made your book available in your language? Probably not, but you sure know the name of the writer, right? Sadly, they do not get the respect that they deserve, in my opinion.
Still, nowadays we have access to a translator’s name if we look for it; back then they would work in the shadows but were a part of the highest social circles, making it super glamorous nonetheless.
Translation became a lot more automated in recent years. I still met teachers that were used to the method of working with dictionaries, calling their colleagues and having huge deadlines. However, when I started working as a translator, that concept was totally foreign to me. And it is mostly due to one thing.
The Internet really changed the translation profession. Little by little it stopped being an art form and became an automated labor-intensive job. I might be exaggerating a bit, but I can surely tell you that there is no glamour now.
Word processing software (like MS Word), online dictionaries and Google translate changed the industry from top to bottom. It may seem like the change was gradual but if we take into account how this profession has evolved, it is pretty insane actually. Not too long ago people were translating documents with their notepads. The translation workflow evolved more in 20 years than in the last 2000 years. Shortly after, the first CAT (Computed-assisted translation) tool was created – a software specifically designed for translators to work faster and have all their tools merged into one. A CAT tool like SDL Trados offers dictionaries, glossaries, terminology look-up, machine translation and translation memories; everything a modern translator needs.
Naturally, as our tools evolved and helped us work faster, the market started to demand more from translators. A few years ago, people were expected to translate around 500 words a day and were given weeks or months to finish a document. Now, translation agencies send you an email with a five thousand words task that needs to be delivered in 16 hours. See the difference?
Translation, like many other jobs, suffered greatly from the rise of automation. And the way technology is evolving, who knows, translators might not even be needed in a few decades!
The profession might seem a bit grim right now, but that does not mean there aren’t good companies out there willing to let translators work in a more creative manner, instead of prioritizing work output. And, if you love words, if you love to write, this continues to be a noble and fulfilling career. It just isn’t as glamorous as it should be… Sadly.