This post aims to provide an overview of a milestone in the recognition as a professional activity of the work performed by translators and interpreters: its inclusion in the Occupational Outlook Handbook of the United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. Before doing so, it is necessary to establish what is understood by the terms profession and occupation, as these concepts vary from person to person, from one field to another, and even over time. The terms profession and occupation also tend to be used interchangeably, but for some actually refer to two different ideas.
Some of the considerations about what makes an occupation and a profession can be found on the site Key Differences According to this site, an occupation is an activity a person performs regularly to earn a living, while a profession is an occupation or vocation requiring a high degree of knowledge and expertise in the specific field. It also points out that a profession differs from an occupation in that the former presupposes the existence of a code of ethics, compulsory training, is regulated by statutes (an assertion that would benefit from deeper analysis) and compensation is based on skills and knowledge (another arguable assertion). One may or may not agree with all these assertions, but the fact is they summarize key differences.
Another view comes from the Profession Standards Council which defines a profession as a disciplined group of individuals who adhere to ethical standards and possess special knowledge and skills in a widely recognized body of learning derived from research, in which education and training is at a high level, and which is recognized by the public as such. Professional knowledge and skills are used and applied in the interest of others. A professional thus is a member of a profession, which as pointed out before is governed by codes of ethics and is bound by ethical principles such as competence, integrity and morality, altruism, and the promotion of the public good within their professional domain.
The existence of ethical standards seems to be the common denominator in the definition of profession. Standards are, in general, created and applied to bring predictability to the manufacture and delivery of goods and services, with the ultimate goal being the establishment of trust by their consumers. Of course, standards can also bring about liability for failing to comply with them.
Translators and Interpreters in the Occupational Outlook Handbook
As can be seen in previous posts, translation and interpretation meet the definition of profession as described above. Of course, translation and interpretation involve different sets of skills, taken as a whole there is no doubt that they are both professions and both translators and interpreters are considered professionals.
While both activities have been performed since time immemorial, there have been several stages in their development as a profession. Their inclusion in the 2002-2003 Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH) by the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor contributed greatly to their perception as a profession. In the 2002-2003 edition, the OOH included translators and interpreters in the section Occupations Not Studied in Detail, which means it included only a brief employment projection and not an occupational profile. This is the entire entry:
Interpreters and translators
• 2000 employment: 22,000
• Projected 2000-10 employment change: Faster than average
• Most significant source of training: Long-term on-the-job training
As modest as it may appear, this event represented a milestone in the recognition of T&I as professional activities in that it joined the ranks of occupations such as nursing, engineering, accounting, and numerous others. The Bureau of Labor Statistics gathers occupational information through the Occupational Information Network – O*NET, which is a wide-ranging database that describes worker competencies. Information gathered in this database come mainly from job descriptions and professional associations. It is also worth noting that in its glossary of terms the Bureau of Labor Statistics includes the term occupation but not profession; defining the former as a “set of activities or tasks that employees are paid to perform.”
Evolution of the description of T&I on the Occupational Outlook Handbook
Since its first entry in the OOH, significant changes can be seen in the description of the occupation for translators and interpreters. The 2010-2011 edition of the OOH includes an occupational profile for the T&I industry. In its Significant Points section, it says that about 26 percent of interpreters and translators are self-employed; that some work only sporadically; and that employment was expected to grow faster than average depending on specialty and language. It also provided a distinction between translation and interpretation – a distinction a great number of people still do not know. The OOH described the work of interpreters and translators in settings such as conferences, the judiciary, healthcare and services for the deaf and provided information on working environments, education requirements (indicating that it can vary but a bachelor’s degree is often requested) certification, and means for advancement. Very importantly, it provides job projections, earnings, and sources for additional information. Information for the occupational profile is drawn from professional associations such as the American Translators Association, the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators, the National Council on Interpreting on Health Care, and the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.
Technology has allowed for more innovative ways to display data, and this is reflected in 2016-2017 edition of the OOH Not only is information in this latest edition presented differently; i.e. in separate tabs, but it is also more detailed. For example, the tab What Interpreters and Translators Do describes the difference between these two activities and provides details about simultaneous and consecutive interpreting. Unfortunately, it includes a third category – whispered interpreting – which is, in fact, simultaneous interpreting performed without any equipment. A third mode of interpreting which was not included is sight translation – the oral translation of a written document, which is used in many settings.
While there is room for improvement in the description of this profession – or occupation – great progress has been made. In less than fifteen years, this profession has gone from one that did not have a profile in the Occupational Outlook Handbook to one whose profile is now over eight pages in length. Despite some errors, the OOH can be used as a tool to educate and sensitize the public on the skills of translators and interpreters and the challenges they face in the delivery of their services.
This post does not address the evolution of compensation in the T&I industry as it will be discussed in a separate post which is coming soon.