Essays on Professionalism

Five essays by veteran SWET members address aspects of professionalism, particularly in a Japanese context, among writers, editors, translators, and those in allied professions. These opinion pieces were contributed to the SWET Newsletter by (in order of appearance) Lynne E. Riggs, Suzanne Trumbull, Mark Schreiber, Fred Uleman, and again Mark Schreiber.




What It Means to Be a Professional

by Lynne E. Riggs

From the beginning, the Society of Writers, Editors, and Translators has eschewed exclusivism and cultivated a good-humored friendliness and openness, striving to provide a framework for communication among people in many and varied fields of work associated with the English written word in Japan. The founders could not resist the acronym SWET because of its tongue-in-cheek quality—it seems to communicate just the right sense that we are a group of hard-working people who have not lost their sense of humor. It also hints—in only thin disguise—at the “blood, sweat, and tears” that it took to build and establish careers in these professions over the years.

Among the founding members and the core members who make up the steering committee, however, the underlying and most important purpose of SWET has been so self-evident and tacitly shared as not to have required discussion: to cultivate and support professionals and professionalism in writing, editing, translating, and related fields in Japan. Of late, however, we sense that perhaps “professionalism” is a subject that ought to be discussed among us: What is professionalism? What is a professional? What kind of mentality—approach to work—does a professional have? How does he/she acquire it and cultivate it?

We know that people who make their careers in writing, editing, translating, copyediting, book designing, rewriting, and so forth, are not the kinds of professionals who get their credentials through academic or vocational training alone. Most of those who are successful started a long way back and way, way down the totem pole. They apprenticed as typists, secretaries, proofreaders, spending long years as assistants to senior professionals, learning by watching, helping. Some began translating or editing alone, totally in the dark, equipped only with the desire to learn and the tenacity to tolerate uninteresting work, their own ignorance, and the demands of the job. They swallowed the embarrassment of being told a job was shoddy; they stayed up nights searching through dictionaries and encyclopedias for words they did not know; they typed frantically—fingers endowed with miraculous speed—to meet a fast-approaching deadline; they shed bitter tears when a client failed to appreciate the toil that went into a job; but they were fascinated, wholly absorbed by the challenges of their work for years, usually to the exclusion of all other things.

Such people, whose professionalism wells from the same mentality and dedication as does the craftsmanship of an artisan or a performing artist, are found the world over. But let us look at the peculiar cluster of professional writers, editors, translators, rewriters, copywriters who work with the English written word in Japan, many of whom are members of SWET.

Whether of Japanese or other nationalities, these people live and work in a cross-cultural realm, which adds to the skills they must acquire. Translators, in particular, must be able to speak both languages with facility and learn the etiquette and manners that will pave the way for smooth relations on both sides. No one working in this environment can afford to be zealously “American” or “French” or “Japanese.” They must know and care about the society they are working in—how to exploit its best aspects and not be confounded by those that seem irrational.

Japan is a nation of professionals, of people who approach their work as a craft, an endeavor that begins with elementals and is a constant apprenticeship and an all-absorbing challenge. No one working with or for Japanese in particular can afford to ignore this—to treat a job as a mechanical operation that exacts no emotional toll and no sincere commitment. Here, at least as much as if not more than anywhere else, the professional is prized and cultivated; dedication and sincerity are rewarded. An editor or translator who approaches each task, no matter how minor or dry or inept the material may be, with the intent and skill to produce a good product, and who knows what a good product is, is highly respected and in great demand. Experienced professionals who have proved themselves, in fact, are constantly swamped with work, prompting them to plead: Isn’t there anyone else you can ask?

That plea, in fact, was one of the reasons SWET came into being; there seemed to be too few reliable, experienced people to fill the demand. More needed to be encouraged to acquire better skills, to invest more years and more “sweat” in the important task of raising the quality of English writing, translating, editing, and related work in this country. Years after SWET’s founding, however, the situation is little changed. The assumption that if you have studied Japanese for a while you can be a translator is still widespread, and the belief, on the part of both Japanese clients and newcomers from other countries, that they are qualified to edit or “proofread” or copywrite simply because they are native speakers of English is still rampant. It takes years—at least eight or ten—of unremitting effort to build a profession in one of these fields in Japan, so we cannot afford to be impatient. But perhaps it is time to discuss among ourselves the values we would seek and the ways we can promote professionalism, both among ourselves and as a standard to be sought among our clients.

Editing, translating, freelance writing, and rewriting are often jobs done in relative obscurity, sometimes exploited, rarely given due recognition, often underpaid; but if we are to expect society to accord us greater status and remuneration—to treat us as professionals whose qualifications are significant and valuable—we ourselves must have pride in our work and be committed to the highest standards. The spirit of professionalism lies at the very heart of SWET as an organization and is, and should be, the force that propels and inspires it.

(Originally published in the SWET Newsletter, No. 26, April 1986)

© April 1986 Lynne E. Riggs


What Makes a Translator Professional?

by Suzanne Trumbull

Lynne E. Riggs’s article in Newsletter 26, “What It Means to Be a Professional,” was, I hope, the beginning of a dialogue on an issue that should be a core concern to all members of SWET, working as we do in an essentially indifferent environment where our personal concern for excellence is often all that stands between us and mediocrity—the kiss of death to a professional.

Writers, editors, and translators are crafters of words. (Some of us may be artists, too, but craft is the bedrock of art.) The tools that let us shape words into pleasing patterns are grammar, syntax, usage, spelling, punctuation—all the empirical rules and guidelines that govern the way words are put together to convey meaning and mood.

The mark of a true professional is the constant drive to do one’s personal best, a drive motivated by pride in one’s craft. I want to comment on professionalism as it relates to translation, specifically, Japanese-to-English translation. (I am assuming here that the translator is a native speaker of English.)

Translation being the craft of rendering one language into another, surely a translator should be concerned first and foremost with the efficacy of the rendering. There is, I think, a tendency among translators working in Japan to focus on their competence in the source language, Japanese, to the detriment of the quality of the target language, English. But translation by definition involves two languages. While both are equally important, we must never forget that translations are read in the target language. Thus, in the last analysis, it is the quality of the English that determines the impact of a translated work.

Admittedly, the qualifications required of translators from Japanese to English are formidable. Aside from having a solid understanding of both languages, they must be able to write English with skill; a translator who can’t write well in his or her own language is no translator. What’s more, because of the differences in the way Japanese and English writing is organized, translators have to be able to edit the raw material with which they work. In short, translation involves every field addressed by SWET—not forgetting the sweat.

This is a tall order. But it’s not impossible, given aptitude—and pride in one’s craft. A good translator is a pearl beyond price.

(Originally published in the SWET Newsletter, No. 27, June 1986)

© June 1986 Suzanne Trumbull


Avoiding the Sensei Syndrome

by Mark Schreiber

SWET members based in Japan enjoy a golden opportunity to observe numerous fine examples of professionalism at first hand. But the potent traditions behind the dedication of this country’s skilled craftspeople do conceal the danger that we will overlook the pursuit of excellence in our own, mainly Western, cultures. The current discussion of professionalism must attempt to combine the best of Japanese and non-Japanese thinking in defining professionalism anew.

In my view, an emphasis on image distorts Japanese attitudes to professionalism. The position of sensei (excluding politicians!) is an example of the way this society rewards form rather than content. Once a person has paid the dues of apprenticeship to earn the title of sensei, his or her social status—and often financial security as well—is guaranteed for life. Japanese society rewards the fulfillment of formal requirements. All too often, it fails to evaluate actual performance and to acknowledge the actual performer.

The romantic image of the sensei is reflected in the prevailing idea of professionalism. Instead of asking, “Does this person’s work justify her or his being called a professional?” this notion assumes, “This person has served n years of apprenticeship and is therefore entitled to be called a professional.”

The real issue for SWET is how to evaluate performance to judge whether it is professional. I believe the primary criterion of a professional performance is that it display a mastery of the tools of the trade. As a translator, I’d suggest that the tools of my trade include a sound comprehension of Japanese and, perhaps more importantly, enough skill in the target language to reflect faithfully the content and the feeling of the source. Editors and writers could easily propose similar standards for their jobs.

The objective standard I’ve just described is sure to bring rousing support from sensei who have spent many years acquiring mastery of such skills. But, let us not forget one unsettling—even unpleasant—fact. There will be upstarts who master in one year the skills we spent ten years refining. For some fortunate and enviable individuals, natural talent will minimize the blood, sweat, and tears of apprenticeship. The corollary is equally sobering: long years of dedication spent gushing gallons of blood, sweat, and tears do not guarantee professional mastery of skills. In other words, gerontocracy has no place in a meaningful definition of professionalism.

Obviously, the experience of years is a factor in developing professionalism. I believe the ability to evaluate one’s own work and the work of others in the same field is another mark of the professional. These critical skills undeniably mature over the years in anyone who is sensitive. Even so, we cannot deny the possibility of an individual’s acquiring such skills in a short time. And, again, a sensei who has been at it for twenty years but is devoid of sensitivity may possess only limited critical ability. Years help, but they are not enough.

There is, I believe, yet another objective standard of professionalism—whether a person’s job earns money. In entertainment or in sports, many people consider monetary gain the distinguishing mark of professional competence. I do not intend to open a Pandora’s box here by debating the validity of this standard, but I would like to see more debate on this topic.

(Originally published in the SWET Newsletter, No. 28, October 1986)

© October 1986 Mark Schreiber


All You Need Is Love

by Fred Uleman

It is often said that the amateur is someone who does it for love and the professional someone who does it for money. As a result, the best of the amateurs may be better than the worst of the professionals. In effect, the amateur may be doing a professional job and the professional an amateurish job.

Yet if this inversion can be true, the paid/unpaid distinction is obviously invalid as the sole delineation between the professional and the amateur. At the same time, while amateurs might refuse to take money for their work, professionals have been known to do things for free.

Perhaps even more importantly, the love/money distinction is invalid because of its covert inference that professionals do not enjoy their work—that they do it for the money. Any professional who is any good has to love his work, for the simple reason that it is impossible to sustain sufficient interest to get good at something if you do not enjoy at least some aspects of it. Monetary rewards may keep someone at a job, but they cannot generate excellence.

In reality, then, we might better distinguish not between professionals and amateurs but among amateurs, mercenaries, and professionals: the amateur doing it solely for love; the mercenary solely for money; and the professional for love and money.

The real professional is thus never “off the job.” Even away from work, he is constantly alert to work-related information and ideas. This does not mean that he has abandoned his private life. Rather, it means he has integrated his professional life into his private life, or vice versa, and that he is never far from either.

As a professional, he is doing work he enjoys, and this enjoyment is one of the reasons he is good at it. Work is not something that has to be done. It is something he takes a personal pride in being able to do and do well. The fact that you get paid for it—that it is “work”—does not mean you are not allowed to enjoy it.

What are the implications of this love of work? First, it means you are proud of what you do—not simply, or even necessarily, of the occupation per se but rather of the specific work that you specifically do. Because it is your work, you take the trouble to do it right.

You’re also proud to get paid for your work, not for the money itself but for the recognition that it implies and the fact that other people also value your work. Money is, after all, only one measure of worth, and not a very good measure, at that.

Because you are proud of your work, you take the trouble to build in quality, even what might be called excessive quality. (Excessive quality is quality in excess of the market requirements. A translation that reads as though it had been written in the target language has excessive quality when it is intended only to give the reader a rough outline of what the writer is saying—yet today’s excesses are often tomorrow’s norms, and the company that is unable to keep up with increasing market sophistication is soon left behind.) Professionals are standard-setters.

You do the best you can on a given job. True, there are inevitably trade-offs as you weigh the amount of time and effort it will take, but you do not deliberately do a shoddy job. Excessive quality is not cost-efficient, but you take sufficient pride in your work that the customer gets more rather than less than he pays for. Trade-offs are no excuse for rip-offs. If the rewards are not sufficient to let you do the job right, you turn it down.

You also take sufficient pride in your work that you do not do things you are not good at. If you have no medical background, you do not pretend you can do medical translations. Being able to fake it is not a mark of professionalism, for the simple reason that faking it is not professional.

Much more could be written about the professional attitude, but it begins to sound preachy and pompous after a while—mainly because we all know we should take more professional pride in our work and strive harder to give it the tender, loving care it deserves. We all know what professionalism is. We just have trouble doing it sometimes.

(Originally published in the SWET Newsletter, No. 29, December 1986)

© December 1986 Fred Uleman


Professionalism Is a Service

by MarkSchreiber

Writers, editors, and translators in Japan should not forget that, in our individual capacities, most of us are also considered an integral part of what is known as the service industry.

The term saabisu in Japan carries with it a number of connotations not found elsewhere (that may be understating things somewhat!). We of the writing trade are often called upon to perform tasks not necessarily consistent with our own self-image as professionals but which are, nonetheless, as much a part of playing the game as the physical chore of putting pen to paper.

The biggest impediments to providing clients with good service, in my mind, tend to occur when we let our egos become inflated. An overly developed sense of self-importance is anathema to forming a professional attitude toward service. Look at the successful people around you: are they not the ones who have also mastered the intricacies of our host nation’s notion of saabisu?

There is a perception gap at work here, because by its very nature saabisu in Japan means more than just the selling of one’s professional abilities: it means extending these abilities to the customer in a package which can be contracted without any sense of dissonance. This particular situation also helps explain why some of the professionals who come to this country do not succeed. I present the following story to illustrate my point.

Jalpak (Japan Air Lines Package Tours) is the sort of firm that prides itself on exceptional customer service. The care extended its customers on overseas package tours is applied with a precision bordering on the Teutonic—this in a country with a service industry reputed to be the most customer-oriented in the world.

Several years ago, a multilingual European who claimed to be an experienced professional tour escort asked me for an introduction to Jalpak. The introduction was to be made through the manager of the company’s tour conductor division, a man who at that time happened to be a close associate.

As tour conductor kachō, my friend ran his section of 40 or so subordinates in a manner not unlike that of the prewar Japanese army. Without an enemy to confront, their mission in life became a near-total dedication to customer service and esprit de corps. In full view from anywhere in the tour conductor office was a carefully lettered poster upon which was inscribed what this man demanded of his staff. His “five basic traits of a good tour conductor,” by which each employee was regularly evaluated, were sei-i (honesty), taido (proper attitude), jikan no genshu (scrupulous promptness), fukusō (appropriate attire), and shigoto ni taishite no kibishisa (taking one’s job seriously).

Knowing that few gaijin, if any, could be counted on to assume the gung-ho attitude demanded of the Japanese staff, I felt my European acquaintance’s chances of being hired were rather slim, and I agreed to make the introduction only with great reluctance. My reservations proved well justified.

You will note that promptness is the third of the above five tenets; as it turned out, my acquaintance was late for her appointment. Quite late. Although she had promised me she would appear promptly for her job interview at 1:00 p.m., I waited until 1:43 before, embarrassed at her failure to appear and anxious to return to my own work, I left. I later learned that she showed up about 10 minutes afterward, furious at me for not having had the manners to wait for her arrival.

Now, I suppose most people read the above and shook their heads, agreeing that such a person is unlikely to be deserving of any tour escort employment worthy of the name. But how many of us can claim we have never, ever been late for business appointments? On the contrary, it happens pretty often. Doesn’t it?

Of course, we all have good excuses—man, do we have excuses! “You know how hard it is to get a taxi when it rains.” “I had to run back out of the station to get change for a ¥10,000 note and missed the train.” And so on.

And what about deadlines? Don’t let distractions or a false sense of time keep you from meeting them. Learn to anticipate when and where the foul-ups may occur, and make allowances for untangling them. (One reason professionals are respected is that they always seem to know how to handle things when they don’t go as planned.) By holding up your end of any arrangement, you retain control over the situation.

The world of business would gain immeasurably if someone began giving lessons in accountability. In being reliable. In keeping one’s word. In being punctual and considerate to those who wait. In being, in a word, professional.

That, at least, is how I view the connection between my writing work and the service industry to which it belongs.

I thank my lucky stars that I’m a writer, not a tour conductor. But Jalpak conductors are service professionals, and their model is one to which I can heartily subscribe. If you can perform your work in the no-nonsense manner of a Jalpak tour conductor escorting groups around the world, then you already have the right attitude to be a professional; the only other thing you need is the skill necessary to perform the work.

(Originally published in the SWET Newsletter, No. 31, July 1987)

© July 1987 Mark Schreiber

SWET invites readers to submit new articles for this series on the subject of “Professionalism” as it relates to the work of wordsmiths connected with Japan. Please send inquires about submitting manuscripts to the editor.