Low status of the translation industry may affect export enterprises

A major research project at Aarhus School of Business, Aarhus University, shows that translators suffer from a lack of recognition from powerful employee groups such as economists, engineers and lawyers. In the long term, this may have a negative impact on foreign consumers’ opinion of the quality of Danish products.

In a new study from Aarhus School of Business, Aarhus University, employee groups such as economists, engineers and lawyers were asked their opinion of their enterprise’s translation department. The answers revealed that translators have low status. For example, the length of the translators’ training and their skills level are generally underestimated. The majority of those questioned thought, for example, that translators trained for three or four years, whereas in reality they hold a five-year university degree.

However, it is not just lack of knowledge about the expertise of translators that contributes to making translation a low-status job. There is also room for improvement on more factual parameters such as salary and career opportunities. The study shows that translators have both lower salaries and poorer career opportunities than other graduates with comparable degrees:

– The combination of low status, poor pay and little opportunity for promotion affects not only translators and their working conditions. It is also a toxic cocktail for the recruitment of translators in future. The question is whether we will continue to have both the necessary number of translators and, in particular, the necessary number of highly qualified translators required by the many Danish enterprises that depend on having documents such as contracts, manuals and marketing material translated, states Head of Department Helle V. Dam, who carried out the study with Professor Karen Korning Zethsen of the Department of Language and Business Communication at Aarhus School of Business, Aarhus University.

May affect export enterprises
This may become a problem for Danish export enterprises because poor product communication in, for example, technical manuals, patient information leaflets or advertising texts is associated with poor product quality, and enterprises therefore risk losing market shares in the long term, in the opinion of the two researchers.

A Finnish study shows that up to 40 per cent of the texts we encounter on a daily basis are translated. There are no similar Danish studies but as Danish is also a minority language, it is likely that a large proportion of Danish texts are also either translated or intended for translation. In many enterprises with an international outlook, the proportion of translated texts is probably even higher. The researchers behind the study are, therefore, surprised that translation is almost not regarded as a profession in its own right:

– State-authorised translators hold a five-year university degree and perform an essential function in relation to the ability of many enterprises to trade internationally. We have therefore been surprised at the low status apparently enjoyed by translators in both agencies and large enterprises. Many people think that translation is something that anybody can do more or less, but that is by no means the case. In fact, it takes both highly specialised language skills and specialised factual knowledge to translate technical user manuals, legal contracts or patient information leaflets into other languages, Professor Karen Korning Zethsen concludes.

244 state-authorised translators participated in the study. These included employees from both enterprises and translation agencies as well as freelancers. In addition, a number of the enterprises’ other employees participated in a parallel questionnaire-based survey. The study is part of a major research project. The next phase of the project involves studying the reasons for translators’ relatively low status with a view to ensuring, in the long term, that the profession gets the recognition it deserves.

Further information

Head of Department Helle Vrønning Dam
Department of Language and Business Communication
Aarhus School of Business, Aarhus University
Email: hd@asb.dk
Tel.: +45 8948 6272

Professor Karen Korning Zethsen
Department of Language and Business Communication
Aarhus School of Business, Aarhus University
Email: kkz@asb.dk
Tel.: +45 8948 6285