From a culture-analysis perspective, occupations—the activities people perform regularly to secure their livelihoods—are important spheres of cultural production and identity construction. We tend to “take as axiomatic that work is a natural locale for the study of identity since we spend so much of our adult life at it” (Van Maanen, 2010, p. 111), and because individuals often define themselves (and are defined by others) by “what they do” (Lepisto, Crosina, & Pratt, 2015, p. 23). This cultural insight sparks a vital question: How does a profession, as a structure, correspond with workers’ perception of work and their dispositions to action? That is, how does it shape and reflect practitioners’ view of their required competencies? Researchers of professions and organizations have long expressed interest in professional identities, calling attention to workers’ agency in constructing, transforming, and adjusting their occupations (Alvesson, Ashcraft, & Thomas, 2008; Dent & Whitehead, 2002; Ibarra, 1999; Lepisto et al., 2015; Pratt, Rockmann, & Kaufmann, 2006; among others). Without disputing the sociological view of professions as mechanisms of institutional control and legitimacy (Abbott, 1988; Friedson, 2001), those adopting this perspective move away from a structural model of professionalization, anchored in formal traits, to explore workers’ meaning making, by which they tacitly construct their requirements and value-scales as professionals (Lively, 2001; Van Maanen & Barley, 1984). This obviously bears on understanding professionalism. Rather than defining it through standardized and systematically acquired knowledge and skills, professionalism is taken here as socially learned competencies, embodied in individuals’ performances and contingent on their self-perceptions as members of occupational communities (Ashcraft, 2013; Lively, 2001).

Researching professional identity thus offers an important lens to the current problematization of professions (e.g., Kirkpatrick, Muzio, & Ackroyd, 2011; Muzio, Hodgson, Faulconbridge, Beaverstock, & Hall, 2011; Noordegraaf, 2007), especially regarding the diverse occupations that proliferate despite lacking firm professionalization. These two research agendas have thus far developed in parallel without much intersection; I hereby propose integrating them in my analysis of translation as a fluid occupational domain (Sela-Sheffy, 2014). Although scholars of professions have, strangely enough, hardly touched on the subject of translators, I find them a quintessential case for rethinking professions and professionalism, and the limitations of professionalization. In the absence of objective reasons why full professionalization should be suspended in the domain of translation, the role of professional identities surfaces. In this and similar domains, I contend, a prevailing effect of counter-professionalization is a strategy of producing professionalism—contingent on practitioners’ discursive-identity production thereof (Sela-Sheffy, 2022).

Using evidence from my ongoing research on translators in Israel, I below present my view on professional identity as a pivotal force in the construction of professions. I focus my analysis around two intertwined questions: (1) What competencies must translators hold to be recognized as professional, and how are these determined? (2) How do these competencies—translators’ implied idea of professionalism—correspond with the status structure of their occupation? I proceed by briefly introducing relevant premises of the two hitherto disconnected conceptual frameworks—the symbolic approach to professions, and professional identity research—and then introduce my analysis with illustrations from the field of translators.

Professional Identity and the Construction of Professionalism

Professionalism as Symbolic Capital

Scholars largely agree that professions are about status and power, yet differ in conceiving of where professional status lies. In the classical sociological view becoming a profession entails formalizing and standardizing knowledge and skills, and establishing means of control of their acquisition and implementation, to secure legitimacy and autonomy (Abbott, 1988; Friedson, 2001). In this view, professionalism lies in measurable proficiencies and ethics, determined by formal “traits” (e.g., education, certification, ranks; Ackroyd, 2016). Developing a strong bureaucratized professionalization apparatus is, in this model, what marks out a profession from other occupations, granting them status as modern elites (Sciulli, 2007).

The distinction effect of professionalization is conspicuous, not only in drawing boundaries between high and low-ranked occupations, but also in creating inner hierarchies between workers’ competencies in every occupational domain, in that formally qualified experts are being privileged over untrained workers, or amateurs. Symbolically, the deeper logic behind this mechanism is getting as remote as possible from an “anyone can do it” practice (Sela-Sheffy, 2022). This symbolic aspect is vital: As self-evident as it may seem, it does not always stand at the focus of research on professions. Given the prevalent view that formal traits are what define a profession, the fact is often concealed that beyond their rational function, these traits serve primarily as symbolic distinction markers. From a cultural perspective, this means that professions’ power lies not in these traits as such, but in the values workers assign them by striving for professional recognition and authority.

This understanding of professions is growingly endorsed by current approaches, applied mainly by studies of less-established or hybrid domains such as management (Fournier, 1999; Muzio et al., 2011; Noordegraaf, 2007), journalism (Aldridge & Evetts, 2003; Elsaka, 2005), librarianship (Garcia & Barbour, 2018), or data science (Avnoon, 2021), to mention but a few. In these occupational domains, multiple, even clashing, ideas of “being professional” are continuously contested. Embracing the symbolic-economy conceptualization of Pierre Bourdieu, Noordegraaf and Schinkel (2011), among others, have proposed that professionalism is a symbolic capital, constantly negotiated by workers, irreducible a-priori to any given institutional format. What may be called pure professionalism (Noordegraaf, 2007), produced by formal measures, is an ideal type, a canonical category, which is in itself normative. Accordingly, “the appeal to professionalism” (to cite Fournier, 1999; also Evetts, 2003) lies in its serving, to various degrees, as a reference point in workers’ negotiation of symbolic capital, regardless of how strictly this apparatus operates in practice.

This view problematizes the understanding of occupations, which otherwise may be viewed as cases of “incomplete” or “failed” professionalization (Denzin & Mettlin, 1968; Elsaka, 2005). In reality, the strictly defined professionalization apparatus is limited to some paradigmatic professions, notably medicine, law, or engineering. And even there, as has been often pointed out, practice is not always consistent with formal rules and knowledge is often indeterminate (Atkinson, Reid, & Sheldrake, 1977), or crosses disciplinary boundaries, transformed and recreated (Punstein & Glückler, 2020). With standards and boundaries frequently fuzzier than assumed, tensions are at play in these domains between established highly-codified methods and marginal ones—whether those of rising new trends or of traditional dated ones (with the latter often revived as new occupational trends). Such is, for instance, the tension between biomedical and alternative therapy (e.g., Barnes, 2003), medical and traditional midwifery (e.g., Foley, 2005), or between engineers and industrial designers (Punstein & Glückler, 2020), and examples are ample. In all these cases, different types of professionalism, as an ethos invested in workers’ action, are resources at stake in their ongoing status contests.

In emerging or “hybrid” occupations (Aldridge & Evetts, 2003; Colley & Guéry, 2015; Hammond & Czyszczon, 2014; Noordegraaf, 2007), one may conceive this situation as a transitory, embryonic phase in the evolution of a “full-fledged” profession. Yet often, such ongoing negotiations and unresolved ambiguity are necessary for maintaining professional capital (e.g., Garcia & Barbour, 2018; Lively, 2001; among others). In other words, in many occupational settings, including traditional longstanding ones (such as translation), professionalization is persistently suspended, with a blurred distinction between professionals and occasional workers always at stake (Banfield, 2017; Nicey, 2016; Stebbins, 1992). According to the classical view, these are all symptoms of de-professionalization, as it were, conceived as detrimental. From a culture-analysis perspective, it is precisely such cases that are most revealing of the symbolic logic of professionalism.

Identity as a Resource: Workers’ Construction of Professionalism

In the latter cases, with formal measures absent, professionalism is entirely embedded in actors’ self-perception and their intuitive ways of feeling and acting. Constructing a professional identity is crucial for gaining credit as a professional (Van Maanen, 2010; Webb, 2016). In the symbolic-interactionist tradition, following Erving Goffman (1959), actors are constantly engaged in constructing identity, oriented towards maintaining status. In this view, workers interactively perform and modify professional personas to demonstrate their aptness for the job in terms of desired competencies and ethics. The growing research on professional identity examines how practitioners ascribe meaning and value to personal dispositions and abilities, to construct their professionality oriented toward images of “a good worker”—or what Ashcraft (2013) calls a “figurative practitioner.” The focus here is on actors’ identity work, understood as the “individual projecting a particular image and . . . others mirroring back and reinforcing (or not) that image as a legitimate identity” (DeRue & Ashford, 2010, p. 630; cf. Sveningsson & Alvesson, 2003). Researchers perceive this dynamic in itself as vital for forming a profession (Brown & Coupland, 2015; Dent & Whitehead, 2002; Ibarra, 1999; Kyratsis, Atun, Phillips, Tracey, & George, 2017; Pratt et al., 2006).

Although identity negotiation is crucial in all professional settings, in under-established occupations it emerges as the ultimate way to gain professional capital (cf. Avnoon & Sela-Sheffy, 2021). This view accords with Bourdieu’s (19831996) analysis of the intellectual and creative industries and their artization status processes, serving as paradigmatic cases of non-professionalized spheres. There, as Bourdieu suggested, relying on symbolic attributes alone (giftedness, personal virtues)—countering professionalization—provides the rationale for what otherwise appears as amorphous (e.g., unregulated education and career trajectories, worker-employer rapport, or conditions and pay), often serving as a moral justification for lack of diplomas and ranks and economic insecurity (what Bourdieu called the ethos of “disinterestedness”). The same logic, I contend, applies in other under-professionalized professions, such as translation.

The Profession of Translation

Translators provide a quintessential example because of their enduring ambiguous status as a profession. Although translation and interpreting (both written and oral) have been in high demand throughout history for their indispensable intercultural mediation functions (Delisle & Woodsworth, 1995), they are still permanently under-professionalized. This holds even for the more prosperous translation markets today (e.g., the Danish market; Dam & Zethsen, 2010, 2011, and more). True, academization of translation has intensified in recent decades (Dybiec-Gajer, 2014; Furmanek, 2013), which is a typical sign of professionalization. Ever since the 1970s, theories of translation have proliferated and translation studies is gaining momentum worldwide. Yet, this progress in academia is often much ahead of the reality in the translation markets (Dybiec-Gajer, 2014; Furmanek, 2013; King, 2017; Pym, Grin, Sfreddo, & Chan, 2012). Graduates of translation programs do not necessarily expect a career in translation, and praxis is still largely impacted by chance and opportunity. Theoretical learning is not obligatory for practice, which usually requires neither training nor a diploma, and regulation is almost as good as non-existent. Scholars are increasingly concerned with constructing a pedagogy of translation teaching (in Western as well as in recently modernizing cultural settings; e.g., Abu-ghararah, 2017; Mizab & Bahloul, 2016). They all admit, however, that the market is flooded by “unqualified workers,” who mostly work as freelancers, often part-time or a second job after retirement, with neither formal trajectories and ranks nor explicit standards of work and pay. Although recent attempts to professionalize receive increasing scholarly attention, their overall impact is still scant.

Apart from certain specialist niches (notably, sworn translation; Pym et al., 2012; or, to a lesser degree, conference interpreting; Duflou, 2016), the status of translation thus resembles that of freelancers, or service and care jobs, where professional competencies are negotiated within loose professional logics (Fournier, 1999; Lively, 2001). These competencies are mostly, sometimes only, socially acquired (Lave & Wenger, 1991; also Billett, Harteis, & Gruber, 2018; Punstein & Glückler, 2020), supervised through informal social control (Van Maanen, 2010). Hence, workers’ competencies and idea of best practice in these domains remain largely tacit, uncodified dispositions to action that pertain to one’s habitus (Stephens & Delamont, 2009; cf. Sela-Sheffy, 2014), contingent only on social belonging and a sense of being “one of us” (Bayerl, Horton, & Jacobs, 2018). Despite complaints and criticism by both practitioners and scholars of translation, this situation has not yet changed dramatically.

The discrepancy between the demand on translation practices in the culture-production and service industries as well as in commerce, on the one hand, and their under-professionalization, on the other, requires special attention. Obviously, whether or not professionalization occurs depends on market incentives and governmental interests. Yet, as the history of modern professions shows, the major impetus toward self-control comes from workers’ collective efforts to capitalize on their specific competencies (e.g., Brain, 1991). This process often entails the creation of worker associations and other autonomous channels, striving for legal recognition and monopoly. This logic does not apply to the greater part of translation workers. Translators’ associations and journals, which have recently been multiplying in Europe, mostly still operate as social clubs, dealing with such loose notions as translators’ professional development, more than as efficient bodies fighting for union-type empowering tools, such as work conditions and fees (Pym, 2014). It is not that state policies always discourage such translators’ initiatives, if taken. In fact, in some cases in which translators seriously struggle towards these goals they achieve progress (Furmanek, 2013; Pym et al., 2012). Nor are objective status threats (such as manual labor or an uneducated workforce) in play that could impede professionalization efforts. Therefore, the reason for translators’ suspended professionalization must lie elsewhere. In line with Ashcraft (2013), Van Maanen (2010), and many others, I contend that, as observable in the translators’ case, an occupation’s status depends less on institutional regulation than on the professional ethos embedded in workers’ identity, which may accelerate or impede professionalization.

Materials and Study Design: An Example from the Israeli Case

I base my analysis of this field on a comprehensive study I conducted in Israel. Given this country’s bi-national and multilingual sociocultural space, and its high dependency on global exchange, the Israeli translation occupations’ situation is revealing. With my study, I have aimed to reframe the question of translators’ professionalism, and their under-professionalization, from the perspective of the actors, by obtaining a closer look at their self-perception as practitioners. I ask how they understand their expertise, and what they consider to be the characteristic that makes her or him a worthy worker. I have confined my research to practitioners engaged in translating into Hebrew, namely, those targeting the local culture, leaving aside the domestic market of translation into and between other languages (notably Arabic or Russian) as well as translation activities targeted at international markets. As translation is not even registered as a profession in Israel, nor is it regulated by effective professional bodies, official data is scarce. Information can only be partially extrapolated from various popular channels (e.g., Heruti-Sover, 2008; Kaufman, 2011; Malach, 2019; Shwimmer, 2014; Translation fees: What is a translator’s salary in Israel?, n.d.; among others). Kaufman (2011), for instance, claims that some three thousand translators have operated in this country in the last decade. Yet this is obviously an underestimation of the total number of people engaged one way or another in translation practices, in various official and unofficial capacities.

Although the largest and most unspecialized sector is that of translators of business and technical documents, it is the smallest sector of literary translation that enjoys by far the highest public exposure (via printing their names on the books’ front page, or using them to promote new publications, or via reports and interviews in magazines and the media). Therefore, information available about this specific sector is disproportionally greater than that regarding all other translation sectors. Aiming to capture as broader a picture as possible of this diversified occupational field, I have used evidence from various written and internet sources, as well as a corpus of 95 in-depth long interviews with rank-and-file translators and interpreters. The latter was compiled in a joint project I conducted 2006–2009 with my late colleague Miriam Shlesinger.

This project targeted five main translatorial sectors (with 15–20 interviews in each): commercial/technical text translation (including legal, medical, etc.), non-elite literary translation, film and TV subtitling (a thriving industry in Israel, as in other “minor cultures”), conference interpreting, and community interpreting (including courts and sign language). These categories comprise the main forms of translation practice, but they do not represent clear groupings of practitioners. Apart from the fact that the written translation market is far larger and more diverse than that of oral interpreting, the boundaries between the different sectors are often blurred, as many individual workers are engaged in more than one job type (in our sample, this applies to 41 out of 95 interviewees). For lack of data, we recruited our interviewees through miscellaneous methods, from consulting translation agencies or corporations employing translators to private ads and word-of-mouth inquiries. Although we took parameters such as gender, source languages, or nature of employment (self-employed vs. salaried) into account, our only firm guideline for recruiting interviewees was that the workers possessed at least several years of uninterrupted, full-time practicing experience.

In the tradition of situated conversation analysis (Cameron, 2001; Gee, 1999; Gumperz, 1992; De Fina, Schiffrin, & Bamberg, 2006) interviews are regarded as socially embedded speech events, in which speakers present themselves to others. To allow the workers to best reveal their self-perception through their own words and contextualization logic, we used open-ended and long interviews (90–120 min each), encouraging individuals’ narratives with minimal leading questions (Labov, 1973; Rapley, 2001). We fully recorded and meticulously transcribed the results, paying special attention to the para-lingual cues that are critical for a discourse analysis aimed at identifying the speakers’ unspoken convictions, concerns, and aspirations as translators (Gee, 1999; Gumperz, 1992; Rapley, 2001). Three research assistants conducted the interviews. Preliminary analysis was conducted by myself with the help of two research assistants. Utilizing a grounded-theory approach (Corbin & Strauss, 1998), we first analyzed each interview (by two research team members separately) and coded the material for social background, career trajectories, job preferences, and so forth. We then compared the different categories across all the interviews to tap different and similar narrative forms, attitudes to work, etc., thereby uncovering options of a figurative practitioner (Ashcraft, 2013).

Translators’ Professional Identity: Constructing a Sense of Professionalism

Consider, for instance, the following citation from a translator’s account of her work experienceFootnote 1:

There is some plastic factory [where] the girl (chuckling) who makes the orders speaks Russian, she is a secretary there, and usually, she tells me that, . . . she does the translations, just, ordinarily. [But sometimes] she’s just ‘overloaded with work’ (mimic tone), so I do it. But it’s ok, I don’t mind it so much (chuckling), they are nice. (Interview with Linda, a business & technical translator and a subtitler from English, and a simultaneous interpreter from Russian)Footnote 2

The embarrassment expressed in this elliptically narrated story is characteristic. In this and many similar stories, translators betray that they are chronically under threat of being seen as unqualified workers with unspecified competencies, engaged in an “anyone can do it” work. They express themselves aware of an implied competition with ad hoc natural translators (Harris, 1978; Toury, 2012), who perform translation sporadically in everyday circumstances, with neither training nor the ambition to pursue a career in it. Such natural translators are countless and often impossible to trace. They may be secretaries in commercial firms (as in the story cited above), students or other anonymous volunteers doing occasional media translation (e.g., Brand, 2009; Pym, Orrego-Carmona, & Torres-Simón, 2016), or members of underprivileged groups who find themselves interpreting out of necessity or goodwill for relatives in encounters with officials (e.g., in health clinics, banks, welfare services, etc.; Angelelli, 2010). All these people have the “basic ability to translate,” which amounts, according to Harris, to the “innate verbal skill” of bilingualism “within the limits of their mastery of the two languages” (Harris & Sherwood, 1978, p. 1). In contrast to occasional translators, those who do it as a career must prove their advantage and establish their professionalism to distinguish themselves from the latter.

Various researchers have recently attempted to systematically describe the specialized translation occupation (Gouadec, 2007; also, Drugan, 2013; Tyulenev, 2015), seeking to identify the qualifications by which a bilingual person becomes a professional translator (Toury, 2012). However, theoretical endeavors (e.g., Cao, 1996; Sakwe, 2015; Snell-Hornby, 2002; Whyatt, 2012) fail to define specific requirements beyond the level of linguistic proficiencies—which all language jobs more or less share (Sela-Sheffy, 2022). As Toury has suggested, it is eventually through a social feedback process that a person gains recognition and self-assurance as a translator. In line with Toury, and contrary to the other scholarly efforts, I argue based on my findings that practicing translators feel they must prove their professionalism not through formal knowledge and skills, but through personal abilities and dispositions. This kind of knowhow goes beyond definable proficiencies, and consists of an envisioned persona—a figurative practitioner—that determines a legitimate translator’s reputation. In short, in translation, identity emerges as a powerful status resource, surpassing professionalization traits.

Moreover, by focusing attention to professional identity, my findings show that translators create their professionalism by allocating the highest value to the image of the natural translator. Precisely because it is de-formalized and ambiguous, rather than contesting this image, those who aspire to be recognized as professional translators are able to transform its meaning and strive to capitalize on it as their prime symbolic resource.

An Exclusive Professional Identity: Translating as a Natural Ability: Or the Artization of Translation

Contrarily to occupational domains where an expert elite leads the charge in pursuing professionalization, in translation it is an elite group that rejects professionalization. Highbrow literary translator propagate a translator “by nature” rather than by formal qualifications as the ideal figurative practitioner. This fact surfaces in publications about translators that have appeared in Israeli literary and cultural magazines throughout recent decades. Surveying these materials, one gleans that dozens of famous literary translators demonstrate a strong sense of personal agency as individuals, sharing and propagating their vision of translators’ professionalism (Sela-Sheffy, 2010; cf. e.g., Allen & Bernofsky, 2013)—a vision that entails a natural predisposition to translating, regardless of formal professionalization markers. As I have elaborated on previously (Sela-Sheffy, 2010, and elsewhere), in doing so they play by what Bourdieu (1996) calls “the rules of art,” which consist of denying standardization and regulation. In their discourse, they thus reverse and elevate the notion of a natural translator. Instead of implying a lack of requirements and restrictions on practice, here this notion conveys the mystique of professionalism, which lies entirely in the person, as a higher threshold, giving scope for recognition only to those few endowed with certain undefined abilities and inclinations.

Using available discursive channels, acclaimed translators jointly construct a counter-professionalization ethos as their professional capital, describing doing translation as a natural disposition that has developed with their inner self: “I translate as I breathe. Naturally. I have been doing this since I was born,” says Nitsa Ben-Ari (in Katz, 2016), one of the most prolific senior figures in the contemporary literary translation scene, who translates from French, German, English, and Italian, working as an editor and a scholar of translation. Like many of her peers with similar reputations, she associates this natural disposition with two main elements in her self-presentation: a habitus-based multilingualism and love for languages, as a child of a multicultural family, and a profound literary sensitivity. Being so inherently disposed to translating, she explains, she experiences translation as a metaphysical process of self-transformation, in which she intimately connects with the original texts and their authors, to the point of completely merging into them:

Translating literature is the most relaxing and most exciting practice I know, as absurd as it may sound. It allows me to get into the minds of great writers, follow the course of their thoughts, browse through their associations, see through their eyes and live their lives as well. That way I can change identities and enjoy more lives. (ibid.)

Along the same line, translators describe themselves as performer artists who “embody the author by virtue of their authenticity” (Shira Hefer in Shwimmer, 2011). In its extreme form, this self-perception includes the idea that a professional translator must be a natural virtuoso, endowed with giftedness and passion that can be neither taught nor analyzed (cf. Subotnik & Jarvin, 2005). The higher one’s position as a literary translator, the more strongly one rejects standard training and praises an autodidactic self-refinement, where skills and methods are obscured by the notions of inspiration and creativity. This has been formulated most clearly by the late Nili Mirsky, crowned as Israel’s queen translator ever since the 1980s, whose reputation of having perfected “a style of Hebrew translation” seems uncontested. Throughout her career, as a translator of German and Russian classics and an editor, she had propagated this view in numerous reports and interviews, asserting her mistrust in academic learning and her conviction that translation requires the personal abilities and mindset that render it a “mission impossible” for a layman (Sela-Sheffy, 2010). Translators of the younger generation have echoed this mantra, similarly feeling that a translator’s competence lies in a mix of obscure exceptional sensibilities (linguistic, cultural, emotional), as expected from artists:

A good translation requires above all a sensitive ear to the language, its nuances, layers, registers, a lot of experience, cultural knowledge, curiosity, willingness to work hard and, yes, talent. And a lot of love, because translation is done with love, or not at all. (Merav Sachs-Portal in Shwimmer, 2011)

Pertaining to this idealized idea of a natural translator is the feeling of being predestined to this vocation and devotion to it from birth. Often, translators’ narratives of becoming include an early-life revelation, in which inborn abilities magically find expression with such compelling effect that one “becomes addicted to it” (Mirsky in Melamed, 1989, p. 32).

All of the above go hand in hand with the ethics of “disinterestedness” (Bourdieu, 1983), typifying the idea of art for art’s sake. Both senior and younger aspiring translators make a point of proclaiming that a good translator operates by no principle other than artistic judgment. The novices among them sometimes complain that they are unable to make a living by translating because of their strict artistic ethics (Shwimmer, 2014). Yet even the most celebrated ones, those well paid for their work, equally deny all forms of practical and economic considerations, declaring commitment to pure artistic guidelines. Let me cite, for instance, Rami Saari, a poet and a prominent figure in the contemporary Hebrew literary translation, who is admired for his translations from a range of languages, from imperial ones, such as Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, and Turkish, to these of smaller nations, such as Hungarian, Catalan, Finnish, Estonian, and Albanian:

I would not hesitate to say to a publisher, “Thanks very much, I do need money and want to work, but I will not translate this book, because I do not translate books that are not good in my opinion. Economic considerations are not my considerations”. (Saari in Blass, 2012)

Finally, although they deny formal ranks and power positions, these translators’ vocational ethos includes an assumed social responsibility, either as guardians of culture or as cultural brokers, or as both. In the former case, a good translator must have profound knowledge of the domestic language and culture, and commit to educating the readers about their own linguistic lore. The latter case requires cosmopolitanism, assuming the task of “a cultural delegate” (Zevi Arad in Moznayim, 1983, p. 26) who salvages the domestic culture from provincialism. High-status translators often combine both of these public-intellectual responsibilities in their discourse, forming a declaredly elitist message. The late Aminadav Dyckmann, a praised translator of Greek and Latin classics as well as of French and Russian poetry, and a professor of translation, accentuated this highbrow dual position:

Translation is a mediation, and there is a dimension of responsibility for this mediation … I am not prepared to measure culture by the degree of ignorance of its receivers … Hebrew translation is an integral part of Hebrew literature. Without it, Hebrew literature would be a very strange creature. (Dyckmann in Hirshfeld, 2019)

This professional identity is distinctly constructed by a small group of acclaimed translators, most of whom are recognized actors in the literary field, where they act simultaneously in one or more additional capacities, as writers, critics, lectors and editors, or academics. Holding strong positions in the literary industry, they also enjoy the visibility of intellectual personas in the public sphere at large. In this sense, they are part of what Bourdieu (1985) calls “the small-scale field of production,” where producers (the translators, in this case) and consecrating-agents (critics, academics, publishers, etc.) interact and jointly construct their symbolic capital, with their back to the public. Translators thereby gain both autonomy and closure. In relation to their clients, they disavow the role of service givers, demanding artistic license (in selecting the corpus to be translated and developing their own translation norms), and being in a position to negotiate their salaries and terms of work. Publicizing their professional identity, they also draw a line between themselves and the masses of rank-and-file translators, whom they deny the identity of “real translators.” With respect to the latter, they apply the popular connotation of natural translators in the negative sense, as unqualified workers, whose only skill is some knowledge of another language in addition to Hebrew (most commonly English). Using the logic that “it is very easy to translate from English and anyone can do it” (Merav Sachs-Portal in Shwimmer, 2011; emphasis added), they accuse the latter of undermining the status of the translation profession as a whole.

An exclusive, yet vague, self-image as natural professionals in the artistic sense is thus the only measure by which a distinction is drawn between elite translators and mere language conduits—anyone who can perform inter-lingual exchanges. In their case, I contend, counter-professionalization, which builds on natural competencies, outweighs formal professionalization as professional capital, precisely by blurring standards of knowledge and learning.

The Ambivalent Professional Identity of Rank-and-File Translators: Translators’ Unified Symbolic Market

Whereas a small group of highbrow translators promote the above-described artist-like professional identity, the majority of rank-and-file practitioners in the various translation sectors are less confident in their professional identity, showing confusion about their proficiency (Fraser, 2000; among others). It is this confusion that scholars face while attempting to formalize “the translators’ profile” (Bajčić & Dobrić Basaneže, 2016; Gouadec, 2007; Sakwe, 2015), usually concluding that translators’ proficiency is hard to define.

As specialization is not the name of the game for thousands of anonymous workers—apart from small niches such as conference, court and sign language interpreting, or localization—their competencies vary according to their different translatorial jobs. Moving between diverse media and formats (written translation, oral interpreting, or subtitling), subject to different market structures and worker-client rapports, they have no common platform for creating a distinct sense of vocation to claim occupational self-control. At the same time, despite differences in sector requirements, in reality workers do not tend to specialize in one job type, leaving no clear boundaries discernible between them as professional communities divided by knowledge and skills. When asked to reflect on their profession, practitioners express this ambiguity: They fail to specify their proficiency, betraying ambivalence about their professional status. Eventually, the only model of a respected proficient translator that surfaces from their talk as a reference point in presenting their multitasking professional self is the one propagated by highbrow literary translators.

Non-elite translators thereby affirm and reproduce the same figurative practitioner, or idealized translator, as their ultimate resource of professional capital. Yet non-elite translators are very mindful of the gap between this symbolic worker and the reality of their occupational life, applying various strategies of avowing and disavowing this professional identity. Their constant negotiating and readjusting of it, I contend, is what maintains the structure and hierarchy of this occupation, which otherwise appears as amorphous, and the position of highbrow literary translators at the top. Translators manifest this in various ways in accounts of their work.

Ambiguous Vocational Ethos

Even the most experienced and confident workers in the diverse translation sectors are usually careful not to sound too “artistic.” They, too, play with the idea that being a good translator requires natural giftedness and creativity, but they never go so far as to center their self-presentation on these attributes. When they reflect on their work, they do not hide their economic and pragmatic concerns and the constraints with which they must comply. Their narrative of becoming is typically demystified. They usually tell stories of chance and compromise, of “one thing led to another,” in which translating ranks as one of many opportunities that may fit their abilities (mainly linguistic) and education, among other considerations. Clara, a translator of business and technical documents from English and Russian, typically downplays her aspirations in narrating her successful professional trajectory:

I was a student of English, so there’s a huge demand at the university for translating articles and stuff like that. And then … I mean, this is an area I really like, dealing with texts in general. Then I went to learn language editing. I can’t remember anything specific, I worked at the same time as a hire for—how many years? almost three, in some research project of … an American university, and they needed a contact person here [in Israel] with [command of] three languages. Uh… it was in fact not related to [my] field at all. It was public health … so they needed someone who mastered these languages, and I was also fitting in other respects too. Uh and so, in fact, a big part of my job was transcribing interviews … [Gradually] I started to introduce myself as [a translator]. I’d say that it’s just in the last six months that I’m really starting to make a living [out of translating].

Nevertheless, as indecisive as their narratives appear, these translators do betray their tacit ideal of a professional self (Webb, 2016), hinting at what they feel are unique personal dispositions required for a professional. For instance, although many of them would expand on the pragmatic benefits of working at home (especially for the young mothers among them), they would at the same time highlight the symbolic benefits they expect from their loosely structured and multitasking working routine. These symbolic benefits usually include moral gratifications, such as personal advancement and individual freedom, which they often present as their prime justifications for becoming a translator. Emma, a translator of business and technical documents, a subtitler and a conference interpreter from English, idealizes her occupational life as fitting her personal sensitivities, as do many of her peers:

First of all, the benefits are that you gain immense knowledge. From my personal point of view, it’s fantastic, it suits me terribly, because, like I said, … I am less interested in getting into the depth of a very narrow field. I am more interested in expanding throughout my life, I love to get knowledge, I love to learn. So, translation really allows me to collect lots of stuff, lots of fields [of interests] … Beyond that, the nature of my job, as a freelancer, it gives me freedom… almost completely, to choose, who I work with, who I don’t work with, how long [performing a certain job] will take, what will be the degree of stress I put myself in, what comes at the expense of what, how the family and work [fit together]. Uh… I mean, there are always these dilemmas … But I’d rather have the choice … All the time you have to make decisions, you get up in the morning, and you ask yourself, “What will I do first, laundry or translation?” I have the opportunity to change every day.

Some translators even talk about their artist-like creativity, if only as a fantasy or as an inspiring sideline activity. Nina, a technical translator and a subtitler from Russian, draws a line between what she does for a living and her true passion: “I don’t work for free, no way … To translate is my profession. I’m sorry, don’t do unpaid work … unless it is poetry translation which I do for fun for myself.” Others say that they make concessions in earning because their personality is not of the “business-oriented” kind. Esther, a translator of business and technical documents, and occasionally of fiction, maintains professional dignity by navigating between these two prestige resources—her allegedly objective market prospects and her unconventional personality:

If I had the [appropriate] character, I would have been able to make money of [my abilities]. Listen, I know the translator who got a million sheqels [Israeli currency; RS] … Don’t get me wrong, it is not impossible to make money off these things, [it’s] just that I don’t have the right personality.

This dual self-perception is especially noticeable among practitioners who, in addition to various other translatorial jobs, translate popular fiction (e.g., romances, thrillers, science fiction, and other popular forms), or non-literary genres like popular science and help books, but who have no prospects of joining the club of highbrow literary translators (Sela-Sheffy, 2010). The strong impact of the vocational ethos of the latter is reflected in the dual-identity work of the former. Expressing frustration with their humble position in the text-production industry, second-rate book translators make a point that this is the system’s fault, which is oblivious of their own professional abilities and inspirations. Aware of their weak personal agency, they nevertheless invoke the artist-like ethos expected from literary translators, as Esther does very clearly: “Of course it is a kind of creation … otherwise why would I have insisted that my voice be preserved [in the output] and bother so much to polish up every detail?”

Indifference to Formal Markers of Professionalism

In line with the above, although business and technical translators usually do not hide their concerns about work conditions and fees, they hardly strive to establish means of self-control to secure these conditions. Most of them are not members of The Israeli Translators Association, which for decades has remained a powerless body maintained by several dozens of activist translators. Quite similarly to their elite peers, some of my interviewees expressed mistrust in the association (without clear reasons), whereas others were even unaware of its existence. Nor can they specify what necessary training an accomplished translator would undergo. These practitioners usually have academic education in the humanities or the social sciences, but not specifically in translation studies. Although diploma programs and extra academic workshops are available (and some of my study’s participants have attended one in the past), these training courses hardly feature as a milestone in their life-narratives. Eventually, although they are forced to much greater compliance with market demands than elite literary translators, they, too, express the attitude of “free spirits” and pursue their careers as autodidacts. Overall, they embrace a very vague notion of professionalism, rejecting the potential of professionalization as a status resource. Linda’s hesitation is typical:

I [do] think that a professional should do the translation, but it never happens [this way]. Really, everybody translates, apparently … I don’t mean specifically people who studied translation in particular, but … Oh, I don’t know what it takes [to be a translator] (giggles) … You need knowledge of languages. I think that, I think it certainly wouldn’t do harm if you study the profession, because there are things that… [But] maybe with the years you can also achieve them anyway.

Undefined Expertise

As mentioned, rank-and-file translators are usually disinclined to specialize. Not only do many of them perform more than one translatorial job, but they often also report performing other writing-related jobs, such as editing, transcribing, and so forth. Consequently, they avoid specifying an expertise for which they can claim monopoly on work. Some of them mention virtues that are expected from service providers, such as meticulousness, efficiency and reliability, or technological literacy, as well as modesty and good communication with clients. Nevertheless, all of them place a far greater emphasis on linguistic competencies. It is evidently talent and love for foreign languages, as well as for writing, that these translators feel more confident to present as their forte (cf. Heino, 2017). Moreover, they often associate their linguistic abilities with a passion for literature and for cultures in general, as their true reason for becoming translators: “Even before I was a student,” says Sarah, a senior translator of popular fiction and business documents from English, French and Italian,

I discovered my talent for languages, and my greatest love is the love for literature, for books. So I connected between them, or I thought I was connecting between them. So I went to study English and French first … I also like Hebrew very much, and this is where the other things emanate from, too.

When they speak about their passion for languages, some translators frequently borrow emotional vocabulary and life narratives that are specifically used by elite literary translators. Iris, a translator of business and technical texts as well as fiction from English, expands on her natural multilingual disposition:

It comes from a natural gift for languages, … from my attraction to languages, even today I have enormous interest in languages … I can pick up languages very easily, I can chat in Italian, German, in Spanish, without even having ever learned them in my life … When I was a child … I learned French at one point … My dream was to learn French. If my parents had money then I would have told them to send me also to … I wanted French lessons so badly.

At the same time, rank-and-file translators are no less aware than their elite peers that knowledge of languages in itself is insufficient for claiming professional expertness. This is particularly true in an immigration country like Israel. There, knowledge of foreign languages—especially of the most commonly learned or spoken ones (notably English and Russian) —may appear in itself trivial, unless one demonstrates elaborate command of the language beyond that of the average speaker (see the above quotation from Sach-Portal in Shwimmer, 2011). To refute this devaluation effect, when translators talk about their linguistic abilities, they usually strive to frame them as part of a dignified cultural and educational background, whether that of a bi-cultural immigrant or transnational families, or as relating to former careers in other intellectual professions. Notwithstanding, they eventually fail to provide a coherent idea of their advantage as qualified translators even in terms of language abilities. This fact often emerges from their responses to the question, “What makes one a good translator in your opinion?” Here is how Ina, a prolific translator of business and technical documents, and occasionally of popular fiction from English, in addition to working as interpreter from Russian, struggles with this question, indecisively negotiating several options:

Well (chuckling) a good translator, it is first and foremost someone who has a perfect command of the languages with which they work, and it’s not scientific, after all I am not in the position to determine, but as far as I can tell … Actually [they] should be languages that you think with, not just languages that you know very well. So not the range of languages [is what counts] … of course also being in command, not just command of the language, but also of its grammatical rules, of the tongue. Eh… and … a sort of literary sensitivity, a way, an ability to express yourself, not just to translate, like a dictionary, to feel the language.

Disavowal of Cultural Agency

Finally, there is no doubt that the work of business and technical translators, as well as of oral interpreters of all types, has far greater direct consequences for everyday life than that of literary translators. Nevertheless, “ordinary” translators hesitate to claim the same cultural role as the latter, tending to disclaim the title of cultural mediators. When they are explicitly asked to comment on this potent image, they usually acknowledge it, but deny its relevance to their own personal experience. Esther, a prolific and experienced non-elite translator of fiction, discloses this ambivalence:

Eh… certainly, indeed, the issue of culture transmission, that is, to give the broad audience the ability to get to know other cultures, of course it has enormous ideological significance. [Yet] I personally, eh… am not so much into it, so from my own viewpoint it’s not so eh …

By invoking and disputing the ideal of artist-like professional persona, non-elite translators, in their diverse jobs, perform complex identity work, affirming and reproducing this figurative practitioner as the professional capital at stake in their occupations. By constantly negotiating and readjusting this professional identity, keeping it ambiguous, they are implicitly granted the prestige of intellectual or creative workers without fully enduring the implications of artization rules to which highbrow translators are committed.

Concluding Points

I have discussed the translation occupations here as a paradigmatic case for exploring the role of identity in constructing professionalism in occupational fields that lack formal professionalization. I proceed from the seeming paradox that although those who build their careers as translators are acutely aware of the need to refute the occupation’s “anyone can do it” reputation, they resist standardizing their competencies, and reject the formal means of acquiring and controlling these competencies that are common in established professions. Despite theoretical and pedagogical attempts to systematize translators’ expertise, in practice, translators’ job requirements hardly extend beyond the basic linguistic abilities that allow a lay person—or what scholars call a natural translator—to perform translation tasks occasionally. According to the classical model of modern professions, this non-professionalization culture may seem detrimental. Ostensibly, those who seek recognition as translators have no way to mark their distinction and claim legitimacy and status.

However, as shown through the translators’ case, professional status is not entirely dependent on formal professionalization. Understanding professionalism as symbolic capital brings to the fore the normativity of professionalism, the content of which is contingent on actors’ negotiations. With this cultural lens, the focus shifts from the given traits of a profession to the professionals (Lively, 2001), the actors and their perception of being professional as opposed to non-professionals. Seen thus, formal professionalization is a canonical type of professional capital, but not the only one. Identity—namely, the kind of a person one identifies with—emerges as a key resource of professionalism (Van Maanen, 2010). Analysis of translators’ self-imaging discourse, reveals how they build their professionalism, however tacitly, on personal dispositions and ethics, by which they draw distinction and construct hierarchies. My contention is this: Translators’ professional identity is not only independent of professionalization—its function as a higher form of capital lies precisely in the ethos of counter-professionalization. In light of this, I must emphasize two points about how to conceive of translators’ professional identity:

(1) As much as translators rebut the status of a natural translator, rather than rejecting this image they embrace it as a higher symbolic resource; they transform its meaning from signaling an unqualified workforce to implying a mystified, embodied artistic-like sense of professionalism. Avoiding definition of their expertise, they promote a vague notion of natural aptness, in contrast to which systematically acquired knowledge and skills appear as irrelevant, if not demeaning. With this imagery, they bring forward a sense of professionalism that lies entirely in the person. Avoiding rational standards, their reputation as worthy workers depends solely on individuals’ display of personal virtues, such as giftedness, intuition, and devotion, like those of artists. In other words, translators build their professional distinction by blurring the very idea of measurable competencies. In this field, obscuring workers’ proficiency, rather than standardizing them, is the name of the game.

(2) The wide impact of this mystique of professionalism across translation sectors means that, as amorphous and diversified as this field may be, it is nevertheless structured by a market of symbolic goods, to use Bourdieu’s much-cited metaphor (1985). In this symbolic market, profession identity is the only capital by which workers gain occupational authority and autonomy (vis-à-vis other occupations, as well as clients). Professional identity also provides the logic of this occupation’s inner boundaries and hierarchy (regardless of objective technical categories, such as written vs. oral or text translation vs. subtitling). This tacit logic is that of artization. In the field of translation, the smallest sector of highbrow literary translators nurtures it as a weapon of exclusion. This limited circle extensively sanctions the rules of art, disallowing whatsoever rational bureaucratized formats (accreditation, standards, tariffs, etc.) members of other translation sectors may strive towards. They thereby draw a distinction between the elite sector and all other translators. As an identity discourse, however, masses of translators accept a counter-professionalization logic across the board, even though they are denied access to highbrow cultural spheres. Given that many practicing translators converge between more than one job type, the artist-translator self-image appears to be the only common ground uniting translators as an occupation, despite the diverse interests, methods, and constraints their different working spheres impose. Those who work at the intersection between the text production industry and the miscellaneous translating markets, serve, although with ambivalence, as especially effective transmitters of the artization ethos across this occupation.

Finally, as professional-identity researchers are currently discussing, a similar dynamic is common in every occupation, including the more established ones (e.g., Brown & Coupland, 2015; Kyratsis et al., 2017; Prat et al., 2006). There, this dynamic either serves as a channel for negotiating defined expertise and value-scales, or gives rise to alternative ones. As scholars have already pointed out with reference to other professional domains, workers are evaluated predominantly by their performed professional identities (Webb, 2016). However, in the domain of translation, as in other extremely under-professionalized occupations, this identity dynamic appears to be the major status generator, one that provides the actors with occupational credit without committing them to formal regulation and institutionalized settings (cf. Avnoon & Sela-Sheffy, 2021). In this field, displaying natural abilities and personal self-refinement replaces professionalization, so that its members deem this process unworthy.

These findings support attempts to rethink professionalism and question the pivotal role attributed to professionalization traits. By locating professionalism in identity rather than in formally defined and regulated expertise, one conceives the distinction between professionals and non-professionals not as dichotomous, but as vacillating along a scale that the actors themselves constantly re-negotiate. Understanding workers’ perspective, one can thus dissect the logic of what otherwise seems unexplained—namely, the persistent under-professionalization of translation and other non-professionalized occupations, despite their crucial social function and high demand (and despite some attempts made towards professionalization). This is not a case of failed professionalization, but of counter-professionalism, wielded as an alternative and forceful status strategy, structuring occupational fields.