The Power of Language

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Photo by Mr Cup / Fabien Barral via Unsplash

People of color or colored people? Hispanic or Latino? Autistic person or person with autism? Translators or interpreters? What these four pairs of words have in common is that aggravation, frustration, or disappointment might ensue if the term of choice is not used in an informed and careful manner.

Many people of color don’t like being referred to as colored people, just like many autistic people do not approve of the term person with autism. I am from Latin America; therefore I’m a Latina, but not Hispanic because in Brazil, my country of origin, we speak Portuguese and not Spanish. Translators don’t want to be confused with interpreters because translators work with written words, and interpreters deal with spoken words.

At some point in our lives, out of ignorance or carelessness, we have all been guilty of misusing words. And that may be acceptable when one means no harm. But what about the repeated use of words or terms that contribute to the divide in a professional community while worsening how its members are viewed by everyone else, especially by potential clients?

A few pairs of words have been causing some heated discussions among translators and interpreters. These terms are not translation-specific, and it seems safe to believe that they show up in other professions as well, potentially causing the same detrimental effect. Ordinary people may be able to get away with misusing language, but those of us who are language professionals have an inexcusable responsibility to watch our words. Words are, after all, our bread and butter.

The first controversial pair of words that comes to mind, in the context of professional services, is fee vs. rate. And the best explanation of why we should reflect on the use of rate can be found in this post. The author, lawyer and interpreter Tony Rosado, explains in simple terms: “I always say fees, never rates, because we are professionals, just like a physician or a lawyer, and professionals charge a fee for their services, not a rate or a fare.” The word rate relates to commodity, which translation isn’t. Translation is an intellectual service, and as such should be paid for with a fee, like legal or medical service. Or would you say doctor’s rate or attorney’s rate? No, I didn’t think so.

Another problematic pair of words is profession vs. industry. Consulting a dictionary is not enough to defend the idea that ‘industry’ does not seem appropriate to define what translators do. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines industry, among other things, as “a distinct group of productive or profit-making enterprises –’the banking industry’.” However, the historic connotation of the word industry, particularly given its use throughout and after the Industrial Revolution, is undeniable, causing the reader or listener to create a mental image of mechanized, non-intellectual production. The word industry evokes the thought of mass production, instead of a craft dependent on special, hard-earned skills.

A third pair of words that raises concerns is client vs. customer. Client is a word we all use when referring to services (i.e. a lawyer’s client), whereas we use customer when we refer to goods (i.e. a store’s customer).

Many times, the psychological effect of a word or term is just as important as the technical accuracy of its use. In this piece on CNN, the author defends this very idea while explaining the different connotations behind the words attack and terrorism in the context of last December’s attack in Berlin. The writer, also a communications strategist, points out that “some words are fiercely evocative – even as we struggle to define them.

Language is dynamic and ever-evolving. Years from now, all these words may bear a different weight, a different connotation. But for now, that’s where we stand.

When we talk or write about a professional service using terms such as rates, industry, and customer, we are reinforcing the commodification of this profession and contributing to its further devaluation.

As someone who is both a legal and language professional at the same time, I can’t help but compare how lawyers and translators present their service or the terminology that they each choose. It occurs to me that while lawyers need professional translators to help them choose the right words with which to express themselves in a foreign language (i.e. at the level of language for communication), translators would also do well to learn from lawyers to choose words for their power (i.e. at the level of language for effect and persuasion).

Language professionals are usually so picky about the words chosen by others, so why not be even pickier when describing and promoting language services as well?

Words are powerful. Let’s choose them wisely.

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