Revisiting the “Poverty Cult” 20 Years On

Newcomers to translation may wonder why translator blogs make reference to the evils of the “poverty cult.” Veteran ATA member Neil Inglis looks back at his two keynote speeches to translator conferences in 1996, which helped bring this issue out into the open.

1996 was a year of change. From my present-day vantage point, I have been invited to revisit the events surrounding my 1996 speeches to the East Coast Regional Conference (held at George Washington University in Washington, DC) and at ATA’s Annual Conference (held at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, Colorado). These talks are still remembered for my attack on the drift and despondency (aka “poverty cult”) that prevailed in the U.S. translation profession at the time. More than that, my presentations were intended as a call for professional pride and higher standards. The ensuing response from colleagues changed the dynamics in the translation world in a way that continues today.

Coming to the U.S.

Shortly before my departure for the U.S. in 1984, a family friend informed me that he too “had been a translator for a time, but failed.” I chose not to regard his words as an ill omen.

When I arrived in Washington, DC, in the mid-1980s, I was keen to set to work. I believed then—as I believe today—that only the highest professional standards will suffice. A translator must follow the reasoning in the source text and produce translations that are credible in the eyes of specialists. Translators must also prepare documents that read naturally in the target text and not be hypnotized by source-language syntax and idioms. Last but not least, translation should be viewed as a viable long-term career.

In consulting U.S. translator publications for guidance, I found that these common-sense assumptions did not appear to be universally shared—or at least, were not priorities—amidst the broader community. Typical comments ran along the lines of: “I love doing translation so much that I’d do it for free, or in order to spend money on books.” Fatalism rather than entrepreneurship was the order of the day (“I’ll translate until I’m automated out of existence—it’s all I’m qualified to do!”). Irrelevancy was common: “Translators of the world—you have nothing to lose but your chains!” Other commentators likened translators to bees in beehives (bees? Moi?).

Such messages were calculated to leave a poor impression on newcomers and prospective clients, and to have a host of insidious effects in other areas. Most worryingly of all, I overheard people say that translator groups should represent failures as well as successes.

I wanted guidance from success stories, not from my gloomy family friend in London. I knew success stories existed because I was beginning to meet such people myself. Yet they were reticent. Why? Too busy? How might they best get their point of view across? This, of course, was at the dawn of the Internet, and the blogosphere lay years into the future. Despite these obstacles, I was impatient to stir things up and start a dialogue. I decided that an emphasis on quality would help isolate those who asserted that an amateur approach was acceptable. I was convinced that a correlation existed between higher standards and a better life.

The East Coast Regional Conference

I began to gravitate toward like-minded people in the profession who were thinking big and painting on a broader canvas. Marian S. Greenfield (who would go on to become ATA President) and ATA member Lillian Clementi invited me to deliver the keynote address at the legendary East Coast Regional Conference at George Washington University (GWU) in the spring of 1996. I spoke for over an hour, climbing the podium to the booming strains of Bruckner’s 8th symphony.

At this and other appearances, I urged translators to consider working directly, because direct clients care deeply about what they get and have an interest in sharing insights and special guidance, whereas intermediaries (there are exceptions) have historically erected firewalls between the linguist and the end-user. To put it another way, there is a limit to how far you can progress as a translator if you get no feedback. You might develop your own glossaries, you might gain in speed—but you will recycle your own misperceptions.

Colorado Springs

I had hoped the GWU speech would make the translator community sit up and pay attention, and so it did. Peter Krawutschke and Muriel Jérôme-O’Keeffe (then ATA president and president-elect, respectively) invited me to deliver a repeat performance at ATA’s Annual Conference in Colorado Springs later that year. This took courage. ATA was embroiled in various challenges at the time and my message of professional success was calculated to have an electrifying effect. But the time was right.

I should add that my goal was to encourage, not judge, and in these and other speeches I invoked the spirit of a London friend—call him Mr. X (in fact, he was a composite of various friends, with a little of me in him as well)—tapping out translations on a golfball typewriter in cold, damp lodgings on the outskirts of London where the central heating was activated by pushing a coin into a slot. A better world lay in store for Mr. X—a world in which he could trade in his golfball for a decent computer, swap his pot of noodles for regular restaurant meals, and haunt bookstores all over Europe to his heart’s content! But in order for that to happen, Mr. X would have to make some changes in his life. Mr. X would, in short, have to grow up.


And that’s what happened. I like to think there was a ripple effect within the translator profession; certainly the ATA came of age during this time. Kindred spirits stepped forward to connect the dots and spread the word about quality translation and why it’s so important. A massive and successful public relations initiative was launched. A clearer understanding of translation’s intersections with the worlds of politics, policy, and decision-making emerged. Former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers addressed the Public Relations Committee session at the 1999 ATA Annual Conference in St. Louis. Conference attendance also mushroomed and gained a more international dimension.

A New Millennium

In the 2000s, journalists called in with queries about hospital and battlefield interpreting (among other subjects), and questions were fielded by experts, not forwarded to machine translation vendors, which was the typical fall-back in the past. A new brochure for translation users (Translation: Getting it Right—A guide to buying translation) changed the face of the translation market. ATA also began to be referenced in numerous publications and the organization’s catalytic role was much in evidence.

Today, the nature of translation debates has shifted with the march of automation. Many translators engage in spirited debate in the blogosphere. Voices of discouragement have by no means vanished. The low-end of the market has mutated. It can be hard to avoid spammy e-mailed translation requests from people with no surnames (Tom? Dick? Harry?), working for middlemen disconnected from any obvious geographic reality. Will Tom, Dick, or Harry provide you with the kind of specialist feedback you need to raise your game, to carve out a market niche, and build a career? I seriously doubt it!

Of course, working for direct clients is never easy. Rewarding client/translator relationships don’t fall into one’s lap like plums off a tree. First, you have to be talented. Then you have to do the deep work necessary to gain a client’s trust, for with greater rewards comes greater scrutiny. If you want to land on the moon, you must shoot for the stars.

The one piece of advice I would give you is this: if you are to ascend to the next level you must bid farewell to the scoffers and naysayers and leave them behind. I believed that in 1996, and I believe it still.

Neil Inglis is a senior reviser with Language Services at the International Monetary Fund in Washington DC. In his spare time, he edits the Tyndale Society Journal, the flagship publication of The Tyndale Society, an association devoted to honoring the memory of William Tyndale (1494–1536), the first published English translator of the Bible. Contact:

Note: The views expressed herein are those of the author and should not be attributed to the International Monetary Fund, its executive board, or its management.

1 Responses to "Revisiting the “Poverty Cult” 20 Years On"

  1. Carlos Ramirez says:

    Thank you for your insights, Mr. Inglis. I confirm to all that talent coupled with dedication earns the respect of everyone who is able to distinguish between a good translation and poor one.

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