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Is there a multilingual writer-translator-reviser in the room?

Sylvie Goulet, Certified Writer
Société québécoise de la rédaction professionnelle


There is no shortage of job postings in communications—and particularly in translation, writing and editing—both on and off the Web. But if you look closely, you'll find cause for concern. Currently, organizations are demanding a greater and greater variety of skills from language professionals, and the number of positions or jobs that require multilingual writer-translator-revisers with an exceptional ability to multitask is increasing exponentially.

An example is worth a thousand words

Here is a rather telling example of the kind of job being posted. The organization is seeking a candidate for the position of writer, reviser and researcher. However, when you read the job description, you realize that the person must also be able to:

  • write, revise and translate into English and French, as well as Spanish when required;
  • generate and develop ideas that will be used to create promotional material;
  • plan, direct and manage internal communication campaigns;
  • help to create and develop the intranet;
  • research, manage and analyze information, studies and statistics;  
  • be responsible for written archives.


An isolated example?

Less and less so. The trend toward requiring candidates to be fully bilingual is so widespread that, recently, a well-known university was looking for a professor to teach translation from English to French, and, if possible, from French to English. Yet, just a short while ago, the same university urged its students to translate only into their mother tongue.

Functional bilingualism vs. professional bilingualism

It is true that Quebec has the greatest number of bilingual people in the country. According to the 2011 Census, 42.6% of Quebec residents said they were able to hold a conversation in French and English.1 However, "holding a conversation" is a far cry from writing, translating and revising professionally in both languages. In no way does being bilingual ensure complete proficiency in both languages. To our knowledge, there is no academic program in Quebec or in the rest of Canada that trains bilingual writer-translator-revisers to fill these kinds of positions.

Trying to kill two birds with one stone: understandable, but risky

Of course, in a difficult economy where employers are struggling to keep their heads above water, it is tempting to try to fill two positions with one person. But, at the same time, many organizations are complaining about the shortage of skilled labour… Is it any wonder? Even an experienced language professional with a solid track record would be unable to fit that kind of a job description professionally…and honestly.

It is not the skilled labour that is lacking, but rather a realistic understanding of the profession and the limitations inherent in mastering the art of writing, translating and revising. It's normal for translators to be able to write and revise in their mother tongue, but to be able to do so just as skillfully in another language is far less common. When you're a freelancer, you can always ask a colleague to revise your work. However, when you're a salaried worker, employers expect you to turn in perfect texts in both languages, and they will probably not agree to pay a freelance reviser to ensure the quality of the work.

So, what should we do?

It's time for organizations, associations, orders and universities that defend the interests of language professionals to establish clear guidelines on this issue. They should also make sure these guidelines are widely publicized so that clients have a better idea of what to expect from the language professionals they employ, whether as freelancers or as salaried employees. No one would ever think of asking a mechanical engineer to be an expert in computer engineering. These are different professions that require specific expertise, and no one challenges that fact.

Complete bilingualism, whether oral or written, is a rare commodity. Freelancers and even salaried workers should not jump at an opportunity of this sort because they lack work, when they know full well that their writing, translation or revision skills, in one or the other language, will not meet the standards of excellence that we all want to bring to our profession. 

Let's take a stand!

As representatives of the language profession, we should be able to assert ourselves and help employers and clients to navigate when it comes to language services. This applies as much to rates of pay as it does to the work accomplished. If we as stakeholders do nothing to change the situation, the market will have the final say, and we are bound to be displeased with the results.

Back to the note1Statistics Canada, "Study: The evolution of English-French bilingualism in Canada from 1961 to 2011," The Daily, (consulted on March 18, 2014).