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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Translator Licensing

It has been proposed that translators be subject to licensing, like lawyers, physicians, and accountants are, to be allowed to exercise their profession or at least to sign certain types of documents. Those who argue for licensing expect translators' incomes to rise substantially if we are subject to licensing restrictions, which would be equivalent to significantly reducing the supply side of the supply/demand balance. Those against question the practical implementation of licensing, like "Who will do the licensing?". We don't want government bureaucrats to decide whether or not we are allowed to exercise our profession. Universities are not equipped for this since, unlike medicine, law, and accounting, translation does not depend on a well-defined body of knowledge which is relatively easy to test for. Neither do we want to outsource this function to translation companies, who may have their own agendas and will be suspect as objective testers.

The American Translators Association (ATA) offers certification in 27 language combinations, but only about 1/4 of its individual members are certified.

The debate on licensing is nothing new. It was discussed within the ATA decades ago, and the current state of affairs in the U.S. reflects the outcome of that debate.

It may be time to resume the debate on this issue in this era of globalization. What do you think? Should translators be subject to licensing? Who is to administer the test and grant the licenses? According to what objective criteria? What activities would be subject to licensing? What may and what may not an unlicensed translator do?

If you don't live in the U.S., tell us if translation is subject to licensing in your country, and what is your experience with the current state of affairs there.

Gabe Bokor


Blogger Kristina said...

I think it's definitely worth some more thought. And if there is a way to make sure that the ATA certification process is fair and unbiased*, why not use ATA certification as a basis for licensing.

*They already have the facilities for testing in place. However, I think it would be a good idea to have someone who is not affiliated with the ATA in place who can verify the fairness of the ATA certification process. Regular spotchecks of the ATA process might be indicated.

If a license were required to practice as a translator and/or interpreter, that might weed out some really incompetent people. Of course, it would probably also mean that more translation work would go overseas, but still...

And I think that in order to maintain one's license regular re-testing every few years would be a good idea. That would be far better than the current CE requirements of the ATA because it would actually measure people's continuing skills, which the current ATA requirements for maintaining certification simply don't do, unfortunately.

1:38 PM  
Blogger Betty Howell said...

In Quebec, CERTIFIED translators require a permit, issued after satisfying the admission process, in a given language combination. With this permit, we are allowed to sign and stamp official translations and do not require that signature to be authenticated. But anyone who wants to can translate -- it's the title that is controlled, not the activity. It seems to work for us: we get paid well and are considered professionals. However, it is a provincial matter -- it is up to the province to recognize the professional association of translators (and interpreters and terminologists) and authorize them to issue permits. ATA as a national organization would not be an equivalent. I think other professional licenses in the US are state-issued, not national.

2:10 PM  
Blogger steve said...

The economics of licensing are unquestionable. The question then becomes how to do it. And I disagree with your premise: "We don't want government bureaucrats to decide whether or not we are allowed to exercise our profession."

That implies that someone somewhere who knows nothing about anything sits there and invents useless standards. That is simply not true. The professional boards are intimately involved with the professional associations to determine who is qualified to practice at the "certified" level. The doesn't mean that uncertified people are barred from practice; as with accountancy, they can practice, just not certify.

No, translation work would not go "overseas" because to present a translation within the US as "certified," it would have to be certified by someone certified here. As with the other liberal professions, residency requirements should be implemented. Then "certification" would be worth something and CE would be beneficial. Right now it's a laughingstock, because the only thing that seems to matter is cost.

2:16 PM  
Blogger Robin Bonthrone said...

To me, "translator licensing" sounds as if you have to buy a license from, say, your local post
office if you happen to own a translator. Bit like a TV license. Or a dog license. ("John Doe was fined 500 dollars for being in possession of a translator without a license").

But basically this "licensing" thing is just another round in the tired old "closed shop" argument, the economics of which are entirely questionable. Here's a thought: Let's assume that such a licensing system is instituted in the United States, and that only translators who are licensed in the United States are permitted to work in the United States, or for U.S. entities. And let's say that the EU retaliates, imposing similar restrictions in the EU, effectively shutting out U.S.-based translators from the EU markets. Oops. Are those "unquestionable economics"? I do love it when North Americans try to behave like good old-fashioned Soviet-style protectionists.

The concept of really effective, tough initial translator training and CPD requirements is certainly attractive, but unfortunately the introduction of such a system would probably put the vast majority of translators working today out of business. It would also require an entirely different breed of translation academics and teachers than we have today (who would also have to be similarly qualified, producing a "chicken and egg" situation). So it's unlikely to get much backing.

However, the ultimate argument against a "licensing" system is that its proponents have to produce compelling arguments that - in the same way as for lawyers, medics, accountants, etc. - there is a public interest/public protection override. To do so, they would have to produce objective, third-party evidence that "licensed" translators are necessarily better (more knowledgeable, more skilled, more accurate, more reliable) than unlicensed translators. Such evidence does not exist, and will never exist, so they're wasting their time.

Back to work, at rates several hundred percent higher than what I was earning 17 years ago....

3:37 PM  
Blogger Silvia said...

I will not express any opinion about licensing in the United States since I cannot talk about another country's issues, but I can tell you something about the experience in Argentina.

Unless you first study translation at the university (about 4 years) you are not allowed to get a license. There are several translation courses at the university, but if you want to be licensed once you graduate you must study to become a public/sworn translator. Once you graduate, you must apply for your license. In Buenos Aires, there is an institution, Colegio de Traductores Públicos de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, that issues such licenses. This institution also certifies the translator's signature on the translated documents that require legalization. (

From the legal perspective, you must have a license if you want to be a court interpreter or translator. The Civil Code requires that any document in a foreign language that is to be submitted to a cout must be translated not only by a "traductor público" but by a duly licensed translator to practice in Buenos Aires. The same applies to any document written in a foreign language that needs to be submitted to any government agency (a certificate of free sale, an invoice you need to submit to import goods, a birth/marriage/death certificate, etc.). This is the legal aspect.

From the business perspective, you don't need to be licensed to translate books, movies, technical specifications and many other private documents. But, in my opinion, if you are not licensed you are missing part of the market share.

As far as qualifications, knowledge and quality are concerned, licensing is no guarantee at all. There are both excellent translators who are not licensed and very bad licensed translators. This is no news.

This is a brief summary of the situation in Argentina, particularly in Buenos Aires, where the association that issues such licenses has existed since 1973.

Greetings from Buenos Aires!

Silvia Gómez

3:40 PM  
Blogger Eric Bullington said...

Betty has brought up a good point; in the US, licensing of most professions is done on the state level. Consequently, should we translators and interpreters decide that our professions should be licensed, we must look to those states with large numbers of non-English speakers, such as Florida, New York, and California, to lead the way. If California were to pass such legislation, it is very possible the rest of the nation would follow.

In regards to the concern about translation work going overseas, I would point out that this is not the case with most of the work that lawyers and doctors do in the US. Why? Because there are laws against it, and because society is against it. It would be important to create these same sorts of laws and perceptions for licensed translation work.

I disagree with Kristina's opinion about retesting. I am not aware of any other licensed profession that requires total retesting on a regular basis. Can you imagine what would happen if doctors had to retake their boards, and lawyers their bars, every few years? A large amount of their time would be spent preparing for tests, and they would have considerably less time to practice law or medicine. Less people would enter these professions, those already in the profesions would charge much more for their time, and prices would become astronomically high. The American consumer would pay the price.

In truth, I do not understand why people are so against the ATA's CE requirements. This type of CE requirement is completely standard in almost every professional licensing, certification, or accreditation program with which I am familiar. This was the point of the program -- to bring ATA’s certification up to the level of standards in other industries.

In general, I think licensing is a great idea. I am not dissatisfied but the amount of money I make as a translator, but I think licensing could potentially increase that amount. But more importantly for me, it would bring about a change in attitude in the general public toward out profession.

3:53 PM  
Blogger John said...

Interesting that this is seems to be supported by the N.Americans, which would DEFINATELY cause them problems but would be very good for me as somone who runs a translation company in London, it would increase the amount of American clients who would have to use my interpeters in meetings (picking them up in London along the way).

The UK system works well, you need a DPSI, "Diploma in Public Service Interpreting", to do any sort of legal work in or out of court, and the rest is up to the company to use regular people they know, thus ensuring quality but at the risk of the company.

If it ended up that the US tried to force this then I would definately be writing to the UK and EU governments to try and get the same enoforces that they could not practice overCh here.

6:16 AM  
Blogger Nataly said...

Hi Gabe - there are some conceptual differences between certification and licensure. I have outlined these in greater detail in a forthcoming article in the ATA Chronicle, albeit with relation to interpreting. For example, one conceptual difference is that licensure usually grants an individual *permission* to participate in a given activity that would otherwise be prohibited, whereas certification tends to be voluntary, because the activity is not prohibited and others may practice it, thereby allowing the consumer to decide whether or not to choose a certified individual or not. In general, the greater the risk involved with practicing a profession, the more important licensure becomes. There are many exceptions and caveats, but this is one basic conceptual difference. If you would like a copy of the article (it will be coming out next month), feel free to email me.

Nataly Kelly

10:58 PM  
Blogger OK Translations said...

In Russia translation services are not subject to licensing, and this is really bad :-( The only thing coming close to licensing in this country is registration with a notary public; but the notary usually demands a certificate of higher education from you to register (which you may not have and be a good translator all the same). And you don't get a certificate or something of the kind...
1. I believe licensing is a must in the industry. I also think there should be an all-country licensing board, which would have the main "commitee" consisting of recognised-by-the-majority translators and interpreters (of different background - both linguistic and specialist, e.g. engineering) who would test and appoint the regional commitees that would in their turn test and license TSPs.
2. In the process of licensing TSPs formal criteria such as proven education record or Y years of practice must be reduced to minimum, with emphasis put on demonstrating excellent translating/interpreting skills in a series of tests.
3. Translator must be licensed to do a job where mistranslation may cause serious damage to health (e.g . medical translations), unjustified decisions (court interpreting), unintentional breach of contract and legal actions (contracts), etc.
In other areas (e.g. translation of ad brochures, slogans, most manuals and many more) licensing must be voluntary.

11:07 AM  
Blogger S.M. said...

No one needs a permit or license to translate in any country of the world; it's only if you are doing it for a living or if you are certifying translations per se that the issue even applies. Particularly in literature, this seems absurd.

The idea of licensing appeals to people because they like the idea of professionalism and bragging rights, etc. However, licensing in reality isn't economically feasible, nor is it practical.

A license is an authorization by a government to practice a profession; no state in the U.S. has the money, resources, or time to set up a comprehensive licensing program--except for court interpreters and translators, which comes up enough in the U.S. that that makes economic sense and is meaningful in terms of ensuring Spanish speakers rights within the court system.

However, it's unrealistic to license all translators in the United States. There are hundreds if not thousands of language combinations that often come up in the U.S. (Chinese to Tagalog, etc.). The ATA doesn't certify even some major languages.

The CE requirements that the ATA imposes also sound like a good idea, but in reality it's a bunch of busy work that any established translator will tell you, privately if not publicly, costs money and time and brings little actual benefit. The ATA also purposefully excludes forms of CE that would be more meaningful.

Licensing and certifications, incidentally, are no guarantee that a given translation will be high quality, just as lawyers and doctors have different levels of experience and expertise--and sometimes make mistakes and have failures.

Licensing would also encourage "black-market" or "casual" translating services. Americans in particular have a cultural attitude that there are people qualified to do certain jobs who may not have the "right" education or background, so the mere existence of licensing wouldn't prevent people from seeking unlicensed help with translations.

In the end, there are a couple of measures that make more sense than certification and licensing do:

1. Does the translator support him- or herself financially from work as a translator? If they get repeat clients, then that is as strong a gauge of their skill as anything.

2. The free market. Good translators get work; bad translators do not. Good translators can charge more, bad ones can charge less--and people who buy translations can adjust their expectations and budgets accordingly.

11:17 AM  

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