I do not know what’s happening in other countries, but in Israel, where I live, the translation profession is dying. Its demise is not swift and merciful, but protracted and painful. It is bleeding out slowly, in agony, and when the end finally comes, it will not be a relief.

Four major translation fields in Israel are closed to professional translators, as I will show below. These fields are:

  1. Government documents
  2. Documentation of household appliances
  3. Literary translation
  4. Film/television subtitles

Government documents

When a government agency needs translation services, it must use a translation company chosen by government tender. Neither the company’s reputation nor the quality of its work plays any part in the government’s choice; the company that submits the lowest bid wins. The tender is for all languages and all document types — one tender to cover them all.

Documentation of household appliances

Translation became a necessity in 1990, when the Israeli Knesset passed an amendment to the 1983 Consumer Protection Law requiring companies to provide customers with “complete and accurate Hebrew documentation” of their products. But the law does not define “complete and accurate,” nor does it mandate that the translation be of good quality or that the translator have the requisite technical knowledge. As a result, Hebrew-language documentation is often so poor as to be an embarrassment to the profession (as well as potentially dangerous; see below).

Literary translation

I hadn’t planned on becoming a technical translator. The market forced me into it. Once I completed my translation studies at Beit Berl College, I started my career working on documents for small translation agencies. Once I had gained some experience, I began receiving work from publishers of novels in my favorite genres, science fiction and fantasy. I translated two fantasy novels, and while I put a great deal of time and effort into each one, the amount of compensation was so low as to be insulting. When I began translating PC documentation, I found that while the work required a great deal of skill, the compensation was slightly over minimum wage (4,000 shekels, or approximately $1,045, per month in today’s terms).

Television subtitles

When I tried my hand at television subtitles, I quickly realized that the field was not a good fit for my skills. I also learned that in all the fields I mentioned above, the lowest bid won, while content and excellence hardly figured in the equation. Many clients are unwilling to pay translators fairly for good work; in my experience, they hardly seem to care about quality at all.

Technical translation

Computers were a big thing in the 1990s. My technical ability, combined with a bit of hutzpah, enabled me to make my transition into the hi-tech translation world. Until the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, software/hardware translation was a well-paying field.

My peak rate was 12 or even 14 cents per word — more than respectable. Translators can only dream about such rates now, and only few are paid anywhere near that amount for technical translation. (Legal and medical translation are separate categories, but I believe that their rates will also decline.)

Translation rates are dropping in Israel for both global and local reasons. Among the local reasons are the high number of unqualified people who call themselves translators, the lack of clients’ interest in the quality of the documentation they receive, and, as a result, the growing awareness among these clients — usually importers — that they can get away with paying lowball rates for translation.

As if all that were not enough, payment terms have worsened as well. In Israel it is customary to pay suppliers 30 days after date of invoice. But many companies force translators to wait much longer for their money, and translators often have no choice but to accept the terms. In the subtitling industry, payment terms have been stretched to 90, 120, and even 180 days after date of invoice. This means that after meeting high-pressure and sometimes unreasonable deadlines, translators must wait up to six months to be paid. Some years ago, the government was so slow in paying suppliers that people waiting for their money referred wryly to their terms as “net whenever.”

Regarding the rates themselves: Amounts that were once translators’ rates are fast becoming agency rates. In other words, the rates that translators once charged agencies have become what the agencies charge their clients (and as we may imagine, the agencies keep most of the money and pay the translators only a tiny portion of it). Translators’ earnings have plummeted over the past decade as a result.

Translation memory tools: From a blessing to a curse

Few translators knew about translation memory tools almost twenty years ago. Such tools have become standard among major clients and agencies over the past decade.

Translation memory tools allow clients, agencies, and translators to recycle old material. When a company releases a new version of a product, it reuses most of the original documentation. The only text to be translated is the new text that reflects the differences between the product’s older and newer versions. The files generated from these tools form a database that is divided into categories such as language, subject, product, and document type.

But translation memory tools can be a two-edged sword. Smart manufacturers realize that a book is a single, unified entity that should use the same style and vocabulary throughout. They also know that the database should be reorganized and refreshed from time to time to make sure that any bad or inconsistent translations are dropped from the documentation.

But companies with such wisdom are few and far between. Most clients see the paragraph, or even the sentence, as the basic unit, and never do any housecleaning in the databases. The resulting user guide is a pastiche of various styles, rife with inconsistencies. Once more, price — not content — is king.

What the future holds

Every era of human development has seen old professions fade, to be replaced by new ones. Carters, smiths, and millers once made a good living because their skills were in demand. Then came the Industrial Revolution, and their livelihoods vanished. Is this what the future holds for translators? If so, what can we can do about it?

I was a member of the Israel Translators Association, on and off, for the past 22 years. I finally quit when I realized that most translators were unwilling to risk forming a union to work for improved conditions and a brighter future for translation in Israel. My interactions in various public forums have only increased my skepticism that things will ever change for the better.

An incident that took place several years ago gives sad proof of this. A group of well-known and respected translators in the subtitling industry called for a strike against the film and television studios. After several negotiation attempts failed to win a pay raise, the group members went on strike. Unfortunately, they had not gotten a consensus among the wider community of translators, and others were only too glad to cross the virtual picket lines.

One result of that failure was that still more excellent translators have left the field, and non-professionals have taken their place. You can see the results every time you watch television. The end-user of the product, the general public, cares little for quality. The clients share this attitude, as the compensation they offer shows all too well.

The American auto industry began investing in proper documentation only after paying a fortune in lawsuits following car accidents caused by poorly-written user guides. I pray that Israeli businesses will learn from the American example, and that none of them will ever have to compensate anyone for the disastrous consequences of a subpar translation. It should not take preventable tragedies for businesses to realize that good-quality translation is vital and deserving of fair pay.

This issue affects not only the translator but also the general public, which receives a product with bad documentation. Most people I know do not bother reading the Hebrew documentation if they know passable English. However, not all users are proficient in English and must rely on the flawed manual they receive. They are less vulnerable to the problems a bad translation can cause if the appliance is a simple one. But when it comes to learning how to operate a car, an exact translation is essential since cars have become a hi-tech product. In my work, I have seen inexact translations that could lead to mechanical problems and even life-threatening situations.

For the sake of public safety, the general public, its representatives, and translators themselves must act to stop the translation industry from deteriorating further. While I feel that legislation might not provide the best solution, I believe that talks between representatives of the Economy Ministry, the large import firms, and the translators might result in an agreement that would satisfy everyone.