This material first appeared as a post on the ATA Slavic Language Division (SLD) blog here. Published with permission from the SLD and the author.
By Dmitry Beschetny
There is an ongoing debate in the language industry whether translation and interpreting services can be rendered by the same person. Needless to say, while these two services are related, the primary responsibilities and skills that a person needs to provide translation or interpreting services differ.
Meanwhile, many people who are not too familiar with linguistic services think that translation and interpreting are the same trade. Linguistically, this is well illustrated in Russian-speaking countries, where “переводчик” means both translator and interpreter. From the customer perspective, “переводчик” deals with different languages, either working on the written text or providing an oral rendition. In this aspect, the two trades are the same.
The International Standard ISO 17100 “Translation services — Requirements for translation services” does not restrict whether a translator can also handle interpreting assignments. It only mentions that a professional translator shall have competencies, including linguistic and textual, in both the source and target languages.[i]
Someone who professionally translates from one language into another accepts an ethical and professional duty to represent their qualifications, capabilities and responsibilities honestly and always work within them. Being truthful in advertising applies to professional translators and interpreters: our resumes, websites, brochures, business cards, manner, and non-verbal emotional tone all must accurately reflect who we are and what we can actually do, both practically and professionally.[ii]
Following that logic, a translator must decline, say, a request to help their client with over-the-phone interpreting of a conversation with a draft contract’s other party. Likewise, an interpreter has to decline a proposal to translate pitch decks used at a conference where this interpreter is engaged, despite being immersed in the event’s context and thus knowing these particular pitch decks’ content well.
To a certain extent, I agree with that. As a freelance translator, I have to decline an assignment that I cannot properly perform when it is beyond my qualifications. And what about those assignments that are within the scope of my abilities, even though I was never professionally trained and qualified in that area? Is it still a good idea to miss out on a lucrative interpreting or translation assignment then?
At this point, I have to quote Corinne McKay, an ATA-certified French-to-English translator and former ATA president: “When you work full-time for an employer, you have one job title. When you work for yourself, you’re not only the translator but also the department head for sales and marketing, technical support, customer relations, accounting and facilities maintenance. Unless you’re willing and able to pay someone to do these tasks for you, you’ll be doing them yourself, in addition to your regular job.”[iii]
To run a successful business, freelancers therefore do not have to miss a business opportunity if they feel up to the task. And if we look at it that way, why not try out both translating and interpreting even if you are not yet qualified in the twin trades?
In this regard, I believe that besides developing a specialization in a particular field, it is essential to find a niche in which offering a specific service really makes a freelance translator or interpreter stand out.
In his recent article “Does the jack of all trades still get the short end of the stick?”, the current editor of The NAJIT Observer, Jules Lapprand, stated, “Translators and interpreters have a superficial knowledge of almost any topic, and unless they have extensive experience in another profession, deep knowledge of only one: language. This reality was difficult for me to accept initially.” This quote resonated with me as I think translators and interpreters need not be afraid of gaining the “jack of all trades (and master of none)” moniker if they are trying out a new area of specialization. As a matter of fact, we have to be interested in new topics, master new areas, and find niches to stand out in. Otherwise, our overall marketing and messaging will more likely speak to no one. Courtroom interpreting with its “structured legalese and its own language that does not change as quickly as the latest fads do in other areas”[iv] is an excellent example of interpreter’s specialization. In other words, offering legal translation and court interpreting services at any time can be a niche.
Since we have a profound knowledge of language, we should be using that to its full extent, not limiting ourselves to one of the twin trades of translation or interpretation.
Today, however, it is rare for a freelancer to be both a translator and an interpreter.
In a truly inspiring Troublesome Terps podcast episode #63,[v] high-profile conference interpreters Louise Jarvis, Monika Ott and Sybelle van Hal-Bok, three members of three very different networks admitted that they often do translations as well when the existing clients ask for it. It should be noted, however, that translation is only a small part of their businesses; they still focus primarily on conference interpreting.
In this context, I would suggest that not only are different skills required to render translation or interpreting services, but our psychological make-up is also important. The existing stereotype is that translators are usually introverts with a tendency toward being quiet and reserved. Interpreters, however, are more often extroverted in nature. In addition, we are all human. Like everyone else, translators and interpreters tend to fear failure in an area where they feel less confident. For this reason, when it comes to deciding between staying in your comfort zone or handling a twin trade assignment, language professionals would rather remain in their comfort zone (i.e., decline a twin trade assignment), no matter how lucrative it is.
When the language service is provided by a company, it is usually never asked whether translation and interpreting can both be offered, but when it comes to a freelancer working with end clients, it can oftentimes be that the end client likewise expects the contracted translator to interpret.
For example, I was recently interpreting for a client, a law firm partner, who had a phone conversation with the Legal 500 Rankings researcher to find out how to send a law firm submission. As soon as the client found out that he had to fill out the multi-page submission templates, he asked me to translate the templates into his language. Did I decline that offer? Of course not! This is just one scenario where an interpreter can and, I think, should also perform as a translator. Let’s take a closer look at other scenarios.
In my legal translation practice, I have often been asked to render interpreting services when the end client needs to expeditiously negotiate contract details or urgently talk to a counterparty who does not have access to the Internet and therefore is unable to quickly respond to an e-mail. Notably, the client rightly assumes that I am already immersed in the upcoming deal’s details as I have been drafting or translating the contract for some time now. In that scenario, I provide interpreting services.
Vice versa, clients may forward me audio messages asking me to let them know the messages’ content in writing in a meeting, which is why they can’t talk. With such requests, I translate, even though the source content is in audio form.
Another classic example of assignments at the juncture of the two twin trades is on-the-spot translation, which occurs when I am asked to orally render a written legal paper’s content. This is quite specific to business meetings and court sessions where the client has not had a chance to quickly find a translator and instead asks the interpreter for a sight translation. In that scenario, I translate. There is all the more reason for this as the Russian law does not yet provide for sworn interpreter status, so the Russian courts do not require a separate certification for court interpreting. In short, by primarily focusing on legal translation, I do not need to sub-contract court interpreting assignments. This strategy has proven beneficial by allowing me to retain existing clients and catch new business opportunities.
To summarize, provided that both the client and freelancer are happy, I think freelancers offering both translation and interpreting services, even those who were never professionally trained and qualified in the twin trades, are still legitimate.
[i] ISO 17100:2015(E), paragraph 3.3.
[ii] American Translators Association Code of Ethics and Professional Practice, 3rd tenet: https://www.atanet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/code_of_ethics_commentary.pdf
[iii] Introduction to the book “How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator” by Corinne McKay. First Edition. 2006
[iv] “Does the jack of all trades still get the short end of the stick?” by Jules Lapprand. July 30, 2021
[v] Troublesome Terps, a roundtable-style podcast covering topics from the interpreting space and the wider world of languages; episode # 63 of July 21, 2021: https://www.listennotes.com/podcasts/troublesome-terps/63-interpreters-assemble-8TwuQZeFCaR/
Dmitry Beschetny is an English>Russian translator and interpreter specializing in legal translation and court interpreting, based in Moscow. He holds a master’s degree in law and a master’s degree in humanities and social sciences, also having an academic qualification in translation studies.
Dmitry has extensive experience in criminal investigation and public prosecution. He has also worked as an in-house lawyer, and a legal counsel with law firms before turning his previous career into his area of specialization in the T&I industry. He has been translating and interpreting for academia, law firms and private clients. Dmitry can be reached at email@example.com.