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A few days ago, the United Nations passed a Resolution on the role of professional translation in connecting nations and fostering peace, understanding and development. According to Belarus, the country that presented the draft, the Resolution is intended to go beyond “demonstrating respect for a profession closely linked to diplomacy and international affairs”, and is about the “invisible workers and unsung heroes of the linguistic profession”. Let’s stop for a moment and think about those words “invisible” and “unsung”, says Dr Juliette Scott.

Do you know what a professional translator working in international trade, development or the law might do? Does it call to mind images of Nicole Kidman in the movie The Interpreter? In fact, while interpreting involves the spoken word, the job title “translator” generally involves text – anything from case documents to contracts or financial prospectuses. Legislation and international treaties are just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of the volume of texts needing translation in today’s globalized world.

Where do these invisible heroes work? If you have given it any thought, you probably envision them at the European Commission, or at the United Nations (UN). Actually, though some work at international institutions and organisations, many translators have their own small practices, and work directly for law firms, companies or courts.

So why are professional translators in the shadows, and why “unsung”? The visibility issue is partly the result of the tension between certain translated texts needing to look as if they were written in that language, and other situations where texts need, for one reason or another, to look more ‘foreign’. In the first case, if done well, there are no visible traces of the translator’s work, and in the second the ‘foreignness’ might be viewed as awkward or even as incompetence. As far as recognition goes, this is a no-win situation!

As for “heroes”: looking back through history, the translator’s image has oscillated between genius and pariah – being as revered as Cicero and as reviled as Tyndale. The religious impetus behind early translations led, by medieval times, to a paragon of the anonymous, self-sacrificing and devoted translator that persists today. Then, as now, prestige is also linked to the supremacy of the languages translated.

Last week’s UN Resolution clearly focuses on a need to officially pay tribute to non-literary translators. Indeed, although literary translators are not always credited, the general public is much more likely to be aware that their profession exists, as opposed to their colleagues working – gainfully – in international relations.

Is translation a profession that you can see yourself or your children going into? If you’ve never tried to translate, you might think it’s just a question of replacing one word by another. Not at all. The skills involved are considerable. Professional translators need to be truly bilingual, or even multilingual, but they also need to have a deep understanding of several cultures, and extensive knowledge of their specialist field – law, diplomacy, finance, and so on – not to mention high-level research skills.

Why do it? Translation is intellectually stimulating and satisfying. It leads you to discover new things every day. It’s even good for our health: well-publicized recent research tells us that multilingualism delays the onset of dementia and enables faster recovery from strokes. As for job prospects, alongside technological advances the demand for high-level human translation skills is growing fast where there is more inherent risk, such as the fields discussed in this article.

The ideal job, then? Definitely, as long as you’re not an attention-seeker.

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Dr Juliette Scott researches legal translation studies at the School of Advanced Study. Her current main focus is the under-explored area of ‘outstitutional’ legal translation. She is also establishing the School’s new Legal Translation Hub, a joint initiative between its Institute of Modern Languages Research and Institute of Advanced Legal Studies. As part of its educational, research and engagement activities it has just launched a unique LLM in Legal Translation. Dr Scott also has 25 years’ experience of providing corporate and legal linguistic services to law firms, institutions and companies of all dimensions.