You might be forgiven for assuming that an international organisation would have a natural advantage when it came to translation services – but you’d be wrong.
Of all the situations in the world that require some form of translation work, you’d be forgiven for imagining that international organisations of any sort would have a distinct advantage when it came to creating and administrating some kind of translation division or service within its ranks.
After all, the very term ‘international’ in its description would seem to imply that its very nature is multilingual – and it usually does, but this, in my experience, doesn’t mean that the organisation has any special talents when it comes to translation services. In fact, it often seems precisely the opposite: International organisations run into more difficulties with language translation than any other sort of group.
The Tower of Babel
One main reason for this is the problem of precedence: No organisation can be truly multilingual in the sense of giving equal weight to all member languages. After all, a ‘main’ language must be chosen for everyday business, otherwise all the principles would have to be followed about by translators and interpreters all the time. For the hidden business of actually running the organisation, you need to choose a ‘primary’ language just for ease of getting the bills paid and the lavatories cleaned on schedule.
Another problem is the ongoing misunderstanding of the process and work of translation itself. IN international organisations – even ones as prestigious and huge as The United Nations, it’s not uncommon for translation professionals to be advised to ‘not try to understand’ but merely to translate. The advice is meant kindly, because the volume of work is demanding, and the idea behind this ridiculous piece of advice is to lessen the load a bit by dialling back the mental strain involved.
The problem is that translation requires understanding. Yet in so many international organisations there remains this belief that’s it’s really just puzzle-solving, the plugging in of one word or phrase for another.
The Sordid Topic of Coin
The other problem is one of funding. In a nutshell, skilled and experienced translation professionals are expensive. Hiring teams of them to help you with your daily business can quickly become a huge portion of your budget. Trying to rectify limited funds with translation needs can result in a lot of wacky configurations, and there have been plenty of attempts to solve this dilemma through one idea or another over the years, from hiring young translators without experience to creating ‘mobile’ groups that jump from one crisis to another, to trying to automate it all with technology.
The end result is that the state of translation services within an international organisation is often surprisingly confused and less effective than in other organisations and groups. It’s ironic, and unfortunate, but I don’t see this general trend changing any time soon. Budgets will always shrink, and people will always resist any solution that involves them working more or losing prestige. And thus, international organisations will continue to be Towers of Babel.
Image courtesy artsonline.monash.edu.au