Dear translator without a diploma:
In my 27 years as a professional, full-time translator, I’ve worked alongside translators from different walks of life: doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers, former language teachers, and others. I would like to address those of you who (a) are bilingual and (b) do not have a university degree.
In the United States, being bilingual has many advantages; those who speak and write one or more foreign languages (aside from English, understood) enjoy an almost intuitive trust from their superiors and colleagues who do not. Being able to work in a variety of environments with that knowledge is truly a privilege. However, this bilingualism has a dark side: monolingual people who see a bilingual person speak or write in a foreign language have no way of telling how complete or deep that language knowledge is. Many bilinguals like yourself have arrived with an apparently complete knowledge of their foreign language, have studied English here and they assume they are fully bilingual.
To be fully and competently bilingual, say, in English and Spanish, requires to have received the same level of education on both languages. For example, a person who holds a 4-year university education degree in America should have had received the same level of education in her foreign country. But the reality with you is that you came to this country with a completed primary or secondary education and nothing else. This is not necessarily your fault, as the timing and circumstances of your arriving here may not have been under your control. But you made the best of it and you continued and completed your native education in English-speaking institutions. So, your bilingualism is asymmetrical. There is an imbalance between your foreign language vocabulary and knowledge of grammar and the same knowledge in the English language.
You may have worked on different positions and, somehow, you or someone else assumed that your being bilingual naturally qualified you to work as a translator. You knew that your foreign language knowledge was not up to the same level as your English knowledge. For instance, you know all of your English verb tenses and know how to use your English prepositions, but you can’t honestly recall how many verb tenses there are in your foreign language, that language that once was your mother tongue. You speak it natively, you are knowledgeable about the latest expressions in that mother tongue, but you hesitate when you write stuff in it. You struggle to write something from scratch in your mother tongue because you lack the necessary tools. Worse yet: you struggle at it because you don’t particularly love to write.
The advantage of working as a translator for you is that you can mask your lack of knowledge by following English grammar structures and syntax when you translate, and assuming this is what the concept of fidelity is in translation. You are wrong. You have been wearing a mask for some time know, and it’s time for you to come clean. First, you need to recognize your lack of full knowledge of your mother tongue in order to freely express yourself in writing. Because translation is writing.
Second, you need to accept that degree of ignorance and do something constructive about it, like getting a college or university degree that requires studying and writing in your mother tongue. If you are to be intellectually honest about calling yourself a translator, and if you want to behave ethically as a professional translator, you owe it to yourself, your clients, and your loved ones.
I am not particularly interested in hearing about how many years of translation work you have done. What started as a deceit, even if it was a lie of omission in order to work, eat and have a roof over you, needs to find its way to an honest way of living. As for obtaining a college or university diploma from educating yourself in your mother tongue, you have a multitude of choices, and not all of them involve filing for a Pell grant or incurring heavy amounts of debt. There are MOOC courses, free online courses and other pathways to achieving what I’m recommending you to do. Please consider these options seriously.
But this is not just a call for you all to improve your knowledge of your mother tongue. Your pretense of being a translator when you are not is hurting the livelihood of translators who made sacrifices, who received a university education, who knew or discovered they had a talent for writing and became competent at it in two languages. You may continue to deceive your customers, who think that, by hearing you speak in, say, Spanish, you are equally competent in writing in that language. But you are not. You are hurting the rest of us translators because you go after our clients, you flood social media, networking and job websites with your resumes and pretend to be one of us, but you are not.
I wish the profession of translator were regulated, that a 4-year university diploma were mandatory and a written exam in the foreign language were also mandatory. You fail either of those requirements and you are barred from calling yourself a translator or seeking translation work. That’s my pipe dream, anyway. I, for one, built my profession on an avocation, on solid homework through all the educational levels, from kindergarten all the way through graduate school, in my mother tongue, may I add. I am a translator because I enjoy writing very much. Colleagues of mine who are equally competent can say the same thing.
Sooner or later, your mask will slip off and your incompetent writing will show. Then you will discover the tragic sadness of having built your reputation on sand. Please, stop being an impostor, decide if you want to continue deceiving others with your subpar, mediocre writing in your mother tongue. You should enjoy writing because your writing is you. If you cannot be yourself when you write in your mother tongue, you have no business working as a translator.