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Phantom Hunting: Tracking Down the Initiator of Translations – Petra Kaseva

The Electronic Journal of the Department of English
at the University of Helsinki

ISSN 1457-9960

Volume1, 2001

Translation Studies

© 2001 Petra Kaiseva


Petra Kaseva

Abstract. This paper considers different types of initiators and their little recognized role in the translation process. Information on this is further sought by viewing some results of a survey, in which 27 professional translators were asked to describe what part, in their view, initiators play in the translation process and what problems occur in initiator-translator interaction. The paper also describes the setting-up of the survey.

1. Introduction

Translating comprises more than working with and on texts. The process of translating involves human beings, two of which are involved in every process of translating in person: one is the translator, the other the initiator, i.e. the person who commissions the translation. Basically, initiators decide what gets translated. Thus, they wield considerable power: not only do they have the means and the authority to realize translations that further interests (e.g. political, financial) they find important, but their decisions also shape the way we see the world.

Even though the importance of the initiator in the translation process is recognized by some translation theorists, s/he is still often dealt with quite superficially in translation studies. The initiator remains mysteriously invisible, something referred to in passing: s/he is the phantom of the translation process. For working translators, however, the initiator is very real. The aim of this paper is to briefly describe different types of initiators; then to discuss the setting-up of a small-scale survey on professional translators’ views of initiators; and finally to present some findings of the survey, focusing mainly on the attitudes of initiators.

2. Types of initiators

In my Master’s thesis (Kaseva 2000), I suggested that there are three sets of initiator types. Firstly, a translation process can have two initiators in terms of what exactly is initiated: an idea-initiator originates the idea that a particular text should be translated; a process-initiator actually sets the process in motion. For example, a literary translator may suggest that a particular novel be translated (the idea-initiator) and a publisher may then take the necessary steps to realize the project (the process-initiator). Both are equally important: the financial means to produce and distribute a translated novel are of no use unless someone has first come up with the idea. Secondly, a distinction can be made on the basis of the relationship the initiator has with the translator and with the target text. A primary initiator is the end-user of the target text. A secondary initiator is not the end-user but the person commissioning the task. The translation industry in Finland consists mostly of small production units, i.e. most translating is done by freelancers and small translation agencies employing one or two translators. Smaller units often work as subcontractors for larger units, for example larger translation agencies. Therefore, the translation processes may often have both a primary initiator (e.g. an industrial company requesting the translating of a brochure for the American market) and a secondary initiator (e.g. a translation agency) who then forwards the task to a translator (e.g. an independent translator familiar with the primary initiator’s domain as well as the requirements of the American market). Thirdly, various initiator types can also be distinguished in terms of whether or not the initiator is naïve or informed about translation: s/he can be a layperson who needs authorized translations of school certificates and diplomas, or an industrial company whose areas of expertise do not include expertise in translation and which therefore outsources such work when it is needed. Or the initiator may be a person or institution “of the trade” (Kaseva 2000:5) and hence know something about the nature of translating. S/he might for instance be an author initiating a translation of her/his own novel, or an editor. The general public would see the institutional level, that is, the company or publishing house, as the initiator of a particular project; but for the translator who does the work, the initiator is the individual who represents the company.

Historically, the initiator has represented centers of power. However, initiators have also been active in subversive situations, thereby setting the wheels of change in motion. Transition periods have usually been (and are) marked with feverish translation activity. In situations involving conquest and colonization, it is usually the conquerors who initiate translations to establish a new order. At the present time, the European Union commissions more translations than any other initiator in the world.

The initiator is, at least theoretically, involved in all phases of the actual translation process: s/he (1) defines the skopos and gives instructions to the translator, (2) provides the translator with the source text, (3) supplies supporting information (e.g. to compensate for weaknesses in the source text), (4) allows time for the translator to perform the task, sometimes also tools, e.g. if a special medium is used for the target text, (5) participates in assessing (the quality) of the target text and (6) pays the fee. Sometimes the relationship between the translator and the initiator might be complicated by the initiator’s “unfortunate attitudes” (Berglund 1990) towards translating. These are often caused by the initiator’s ignorance of what translating actually involves.

3. On acquiring data on initiators

I decided to approach professional translators and ask for their help in “tracking down the phantom”. A survey seemed to me to be a particularly appropriate method of gathering data on a topic largely ignored in the earlier research. Also, I felt that a survey is a good way to study a topic that so materially concerns everyday practice. As the survey method is less frequently used in translation studies than in the social sciences and consequently likely to be less familiar to readers of this paper, I would like to discuss the planning of my survey in some detail before going on to present some results.

A survey is perhaps particularly fitting for a discipline like translation studies, sometimes criticized for being alienated from what professional translation actually involves. A study based on real-world data may interest even translators who otherwise regard theories with disdain. I would argue first of all that for a survey to succeed, the topic should have some relevance for the informants: they will commit themselves to the study if they feel that the topic is worth studying and/or if they feel that the results may provide them with some interesting – even useful – information.

The process of conducting a survey consists of numerous questions that are worked on simultaneously. The alternative answers to each question influence all the other questions and answers. The survey seems to constantly change its shape, like the view in a kaleidoscope.

One of the first questions the researcher should ask is what exactly s/he wishes to learn from her/his subjects. I think it is also necessary quite early on in the process to consider how the acquired data will be sorted and analyzed, as well as what kind of information technology is required and available. Probably at quite an early stage the researcher has an idea as to who the informants should be, how many they should be, and how they can be reached. Since I wanted to learn more about the initiator of translations, my first thought was to ask initiators directly. However, initiators are not a uniform professional group and to reach a representative group would have been a task beyond the scope of a Master’s thesis. Instead, I decided to put my questions to translators. I discarded my initial idea of contacting translators through the Finnish Association of Translators and Interpreters, for two reasons: firstly, the member translators of the Association are grouped in sections in accordance with the text type they mostly work with, but I wanted informants representing various kinds of translator-initiator relationships rather than different text types. Secondly, I hoped my study could include professionals who have translating as only one part of their job description, for example secretaries working for companies operating internationally. I think that this group produces quite a lot of translated text, but they are rarely seen as professional translators. Even though this group may have been trained in translation, I thought it unlikely that they could be reached through the Association. Instead, I utilized Translat, a Finnish internet mailing list with some 200 members, to make preliminary contact with potential informants.

My 27 informants represented three groups, each having a different type of relationship with their initiators: (1) independent translators, (2) translators working for a translation agency and (3) translators working for an organization, the main purpose of which is not to produce translations. Figure 1 shows the number of subjects in each group.


Figure 1:

Group 1 = independent translators;

Group 2 = agency translators;

Group 3 = translators in other organizations.

The number of subjects is a key factor when planning the form of the actual questions. With a small group, open-ended questions are probably the most rewarding. With a large group, questions that request answers that can be analyzed statistically are perhaps better, because they can be analyzed by computer. Both question types have their pros and cons. Open-ended questions may be quite demanding for the subjects, who may find writing the answers time-consuming and laborious. If the questionnaire is very long, the quality of the answers may suffer towards the end. With a small group of subjects, the researcher may have to resist the temptation of squeezing all possible information out of the relatively few subjects. From the researcher’s point of view, analyzing answers always requires some interpreting, and the researcher has the responsibility to be as neutral as possible in her/his interpretation. On the other hand, open-ended answers vary a great deal and it is not unusual to find unexpected information, which makes the returned questionnaires an interesting read.

Questionnaires with for example multiple-choice questions and/or questions that request the subjects’ evaluation of something on a scale, are quicker and perhaps easier for the respondents to complete. But it may be that not as much thought is then given to the answers as when they have to be written out explicitly. Using questions that request statistically analyzable answers requires a better knowledge of statistics, as well as better computer skills, than using open-ended questions. However, the answers can be organized in a database, which makes them easy to process and analyze. Data gathered from a small group may point in every direction and no real conclusions can be drawn. However, the result often shows how versatile reality can be, and the researcher can use it as a tool in a descriptive study.

All questions, regardless of the question type, should be neutral in at least two ways: firstly, the researcher’s own opinions should not be visible in the way the questions are asked; secondly, the questions should not be chosen and formulated so that the answers inevitably point in a particular direction and/or describe only one aspect of a phenomenon. Another requirement is that the question should not be too negative in tone. Sometimes the research topic arouses strong emotions, and it is very difficult to formulate questions that are neutral and discreet but which still produce informative answers.

Sending and returning the questionnaire has to be cost-free for the subjects and the whole exchange should also take place reasonably efficiently and reliably. Nowadays most subjects probably have access to quick, efficient and inexpensive e-mail. However, typing a questionnaire in the message field imposes restrictions on such matters as length and the form of the questionnaire. Opening, filling out and returning attachment files for example in Word format may also cause problems. I decided to use regular mail, because it is fairly reliable and quick and reaches everyone. However, enclosing a prepaid envelope turned out to be slightly complicated as some of the subjects lived abroad, not to mention a considerable expense.

It is also the researcher’s duty to handle the acquired data in an appropriate manner. The voice of each subject should be respected, and the answers treated accordingly, even if they cannot be used to support the researcher’s expectations. The researcher is also obliged to complete the analysis of the acquired data, as well as the entire study, within a reasonable period of time; the researcher is not allowed to sit on the material for ever. It is also the researcher’s duty to make the results available for all interested parties, for example by sending copies by e-mail and supplying subjects’ organizations with paper copies.

4. How translators see their initiators: some results of the survey

4.1. Background

My initial approaches through the translators’ mailing list and the journal Kääntäjä – översättaren (published by the Finnish Association of Translators and Interpreters) led to 32 professional translators volunteering to take part in the survey. I sent out questionnaires to all and 27 were returned. This high rate of return (84 %) probably resulted from the informants being consulted in advance on their willingness to participate. Many also indicated interest in the topic and in the eventual results of the study.

Eighteen subjects , i.e. nearly 67 %, were Finnish-speaking Finns working in Finland. The subjects reported working with twelve source languages and seven target languages in all. Their experience in translating varies from a few years to more than fifteen years. Even though most, i.e. 16, had acquired their language skills through language studies, they represented various educational backgrounds. Only 12, i.e. less than half of the group, had received actual translator training. Four subjects reported no actual translation or language training. Many subjects had received other training in addition to language training. Nearly all the subjects (25) were document translators.

The number of initiators the subjects reported working with varied between one and 250, depending for example on whether the answer referred to primary or secondary initiators, or to the agency’s initiators as opposed to the ones assigned to the translator personally. Eleven subjects reported working with primary initiators, eight with secondary initiators and eight with both initiator types.

4.2. Initiator–translator interaction

In the experience of the translators, initiators are mostly not language or translation professionals. Only translators working for translation agencies or as subcontractors reported having initiators whom they thought of as professionals in this respect. It should be noted that there was only one literary translator informant in the survey; literary translators of course more frequently work with primary initiators who are language professionals, usually literary editors.

The initiators differed also in terms of experience in initiating: eleven subjects felt that their initiators had a lot of experience; only one felt that the initiator did not have any experience. Three subjects gave unexpected but interesting replies: they seemed to feel that it is not essential for the initiator to be experienced in commissioning translations in particular if s/he has experience in commissioning in general (e.g. initiators in management positions are used to delegating different kinds of tasks to their subordinates). One of the subjects classified the initiators into three groups according to their experience: (1) professionals, i.e. translation agencies, (2) semi-professionals, i.e. representatives of companies who often commission translations, and (3) amateurs, i.e. private persons or representatives of companies who only occasionally commission translations. This informant found cooperation with professional and semi-professional initiators usually smooth, whereas dealing with amateurs could sometimes be problematic.

The initiators’ attitudes towards translating and translators are mirrored in the initiator-translator interaction throughout the translation process. When subjects were asked to describe factors that are typical of the situations in which they receive commissions, eight subjects (30 %), representing all three groups, reported that the time reserved for performing the translation task is usually too short. There seems to be a tendency to leave commissioning to the last minute. The unreasonable deadline seems to be a significant issue in everyday translating, since the topic kept resurfacing in answers to other questions in the questionnaire. Another factor translators must negotiate is the fee (size, terms). The initiators’ attitudes towards both deadlines and fees seemed to be connected with experience: for example, an inexperienced initiator may not be capable of evaluating the time and expense of translating a “demanding” text or translating from or into a “rare” or less used language. However, some subjects do admit that the initiator is also sometimes caught between a rock and a hard place: s/he may have a tight schedule and/or be on a tight budget.

An initiator’s attitudes are perhaps also reflected in the degree to which and the ways in which s/he participates in the translator’s work. Only one independent translator reported that there is no initiator participation; eight subjects (representing all three groups of translator-initiator relationships; see Figure 1) state that the initiator rarely takes part in the actual work involved in translating. The initiators who assist the translator do so in a number of ways as shown in
Table 1:

Description of initiator participation

Group 1

Group 2

Group 3

1 None


2 Rare




3 General (can include any form of assistance)



4 Terminology



5 Supporting material



6 Source tips



7 Parallel texts


8 Instructions


9 Proofreading, assessment and feedback




Table 1: Subjects’ comments on the initiators’ participation in actual translating, as reported by the three groups. Some subjects gave comments on several types of participation.

It seems that independent (= group 1) translators were referring to either primary or secondary initiators in their answers, whereas translators who worked for a translation agency (= group 2) or for another type of organization (= group 3) were mostly referring to the end-users of the target text. Group 1 translators reported receiving assistance whenever they need and request it – but a couple of answers were negative in tone, pointing out that support is never automatically forthcoming. A small minority stated that initiators are closely involved and willing to give all the support in their power. In group 2, primary initiators rarely participate. One reason for this could be that translators working for a translation agency perhaps have narrower but deeper areas of expertise. The agency may forward texts on a specific topic or for a specific, regular client to a specific translator for a longer period of time. On one hand, this experience (all group 2 translators had 5-10 years of experience), combined with easy access to support from colleagues, may lessen the need for other support. On the other hand, the initiators may not be as willing to give support to translators working for an agency; they may feel that the agency, a community of professionals, should be able to provide support for the translator. One answer given by a group 2 translator seemed to contradict the answers given by the others: the translator stated that her/his translation agency makes an effort to enhance the initiators’ involvement in the translating process and so the translator works in close cooperation with the initiator. The issue of initiator support comes up again in the subjects’ descriptions of a ‘typical initiator’. One subject reports that the ‘typical initiator’ has a lot of experience and, therefore, knows “what the translator needs”; the initiator automatically gives the translator the necessary support. For another, the ‘typical initiator’ “never gives any background material”. Another subject reported that the ‘typical initiator’ expects the translator to use terminology that s/he does not actually have access to. Also, the source text usually requires “reading between the lines” without any assistance from the initiator. However, several subjects reported that they get help upon request; some emphasized the initiator’s willingness to help. For example, according to the two subjects who reported working as subcontractors to translation agencies, agencies provide assistance promptly and throughout the whole process. One of the subjects whose ‘typical initiators’ are either Finns or Americans reported that s/he had not detected any cultural differences as far as replying to the translator’s inquiries are concerned: both nationalities seem willing enough to answer questions concerning the translation task at hand.

What the survey reveals about questions of time and money indicates that these issues are frequent sources of friction between translators and initiators. Further causes of friction identified by the subjects include that

  • there is inability and unwillingness to accept that other, previously received commissions must be prioritized
  • the demanding nature of the task is belittled
  • supporting material must be specifically requested, even from an experienced initiator
  • the source text is edited (changed) during the translation process
  • the target text audience is not sufficiently defined.

However, it seems that at least some initiators appreciate their translators – even to the point of saying so: three subjects reported that the initiator trusted the translator’s expertise and felt confident about leaving the task in the hands of a professional translator. One subject reported that the typical initiator was “encouraging but critical”.

The respondents also gave their estimate of how frequently (1) different kinds of weaknesses appear in the commissions, (2) the translator has to take measures to compensate for an insufficiently outlined commission and (3) the initiator finds it difficult to understand the various aspects of translating activity. The subjects gave their estimates on a scale from 0 to 5 as follows:




hardly ever / very seldom




in about half of the commissions


often (in more than half of the commissions)


nearly always

Table 2:Evaluation scale: how frequently commissions are considered ‘weak’ in various ways.

The total average for the frequency of different kinds of weaknesses is 2.38, which suggests that less than half of the commissions are inadequate or unsatisfactory in some way. In this light, it is not perhaps surprising that the total average for the frequency of translatorial compensation for the weaknesses is only 1.96.

The third question that related to weaknesses in commissions asked the informants to estimate how often initiators have difficulties in understanding that

  • the translator may need help with her/his task
  • the translator does not know every word in the target language (is not ‘a walking dictionary’)
  • the source text could be deficient
  • the translator would like access to material that provides supporting information
  • the translator would like to contact the source text writer / primary initiator
  • the translator feels responsible for the quality of the target text
  • translating takes a longer time than the commissioner had estimated
  • the translator is entitled to an adequate fee (= the initiator thinks translating is too expensive).

The answers reflected considerable variation between individuals. In the subject-specific analysis, the lowest average was 0.0 which suggests that the typical initiator of the particular translator in question is well aware of what translating involves; the translator has not experienced any negative attitudes. The highest average is 4.5, however, which means that this informant may encounter several types of negative attitude in connection with most of her/his commissions.

Figure 2:

Subjects’ estimates of initiators’ attitudes.

In the item-specific analysis, the lowest average (1.6) was for the item about whether initiators understand that translators feel responsible for the quality of the target text. This result suggests that translators generally think that the typical initiator does indeed understand that the translator feels responsible for the quality of his/her work. The averages for the other estimates varied between 2.0 and 2.4. The overall average (all subjects, all attitude types) was 2.1, which suggests that regardless of some high estimates recorded by some subjects, the typical initiator is seldom thought to have an actual ‘attitude problem’, i.e. fail to appreciate the degree of difficulty of the task and/or of the end result.

Most commission-related problems at least partly stem from the attitudes towards translating and translators that generally prevail in our society and culture. Another major reason for problems is the initiator’s (as well as the general) lack of knowledge of the various aspects that are involved in translating. This ignorance is also the most important cause of negative attitudes. Taking the major causes of commission-related problems into account, there seem to be three major ways to improve the relationship between the initiator and the translator: training, cooperation and increasing the visibility of translators.

4.3. Ways to improve initiator-translator interaction

What can translators do to improve initiator-translator interaction and where can they learn how to do it? Translator training would seem to be an obvious solution, but has this issue been addressed in training? Four of the 12 subjects with translator training did not list it as a source of information on how to deal with commission-related problems, but the other eight reported other training as such a source. None of the subjects thought it unnecessary to discuss commission-related problems in translator training. As we saw, the (document) initiator is rarely a translation or language professional. Therefore, s/he cannot be expected to have a comprehensive knowledge of what translation involves. It is the translator’s task to ‘educate’ the initiator. To do this efficiently and successfully, this issue must be addressed in translator training. Training also helps translators maintain and improve the quality of their work and ensure customer satisfaction. General negative attitudes are more difficult to tackle: they may be deeply rooted in society and culture, and it will take a lot of time and effort to change them. An individual translator’s efforts to influence the attitudes of people around her/him are valuable, but a lone individual can rarely have a profound impact on an entire culture. Therefore, translators must cooperate in this. Indeed 81 % of the respondents reported other translators as helpful sources of information on how to deal with commission-related problems. It is easier for a large group to become a more visible and clearly identifiable professional institution than for an individual or a small group. Also, as a group, translators are able to gather resources for spreading information. A clearly distinguishable professional group can have a stronger impact on the culture and society, and, therefore, be better placed to influence attitudes.

5. Conclusion

In this paper, I have discussed the seemingly invisible role that the initiator plays in the translation process. Since there was little consideration of this issue in translation studies, I set up a survey to find out how Finnish translators view their initiators and to reveal problems that may arise together with sources of friction in initiator–translator interaction. While the majority of the translators reported a relatively high degree of satisfaction with their initiators, there were some respondents whose experiences were less satisfactory. In the future, problem-solving involving relations with initiators could be addressed through both translator training and translator cooperation.



Berglund, Lars O. (1990) “The search for social significance.” Lebende Sprachen 4 145-151.

Kaseva, Petra (2000) The Phantom of the Process: on the Role of the Initiator of Translations. Unpublished Master’s thesis, University of Helsinki, Department of English.